Tom Byer conducting one of his countless youth football clinics in Japan. (Image: ASEAN Football Feast)

Australian football can learn valuable lessons from the youth development displayed in Japanese football for the last three decades.

Decades ago, Tom Byer planted seeds in grassroots Japanese football which have been gradually flourishing ever since. Australia can study and learn a lesson in youth development from Japan’s successful, sustainable, youth-first model.

His is not a name that most football supporters in Australia are familiar with. With a modest playing career with youth football in the United States, a lower league stint in England, and a year of football in Japan, that is not a surprise.

Byer is best known for the job he did after his playing days were over. Most football fans would be flabbergasted to hear that in a youth clinic featuring Byer and star-studded Galactico Zinedine Zidane, it was Byer, affectionately known as Tomsan, who the children were chanting for.

Despite his uneventful playing career, Byer was the catalyst for a culture change in Japan. Byer is often given credit for Japan’s robust youth development system and football overtaking baseball as the most popular sport in the country.

Tom Byer and Zinedine Zidane conducting a youth clinic in Japan. (Image: Tom Byer)

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Byer’s opportunity

After his retirement as a footballer, Byer decided to set up a youth football clinic based around entertaining aspects of the game, such as juggling. As a result of his limited grasp of the Japanese language, he was originally restricted to just calling international schools based in Japan.

In 1989, while running his clinic in a Canadian school in Japan, Byer found out one of the young boys in his clinic was the son of the Nestle President in Japan. Byer approached the father to enquire about a potential sponsorship opportunity for his program.

The father decided to sponsor Byer’s football program for a nation-wide tour of 50 clinic programs, with Byer also giving out Nestle samples at the conclusion of the sessions. This sponsorship lasted 11, years and it was Byer’s first big break in Japan, and the first ripple in what was a big wave to come.

The philosophy

Through the years, Byer became popular in regards to youth football development, but his objective was still entertainment. That all changed after he opened his own soccer school and his subsequent introduction to former Toronto FC coach, Paul Mariner.

Mariner introduced Byer to the Coerver Method of coaching, created by the Dutch coach Wiel Coerver. The method is presented in a pyramid with steps being built from the basics at the the bottom towards real game simulation at the top.

The Coerver Method used by Tom Byer in Japan. (Image: Coerver Arizona Coaching)

The players begin individually. They are shown different ways of controlling and manipulating the ball. Even though they are practicing moves to use against opponents, they are not yet facing any opposition. Initially, it is all about repetition and mastery of the basics.

Once that has been achieved, the focus shifts to receiving and delivering the ball. Players are expected to master accuracy, a good first touch with both feet and are encouraged to be creative with their passing as an extension.

After the children have mastered the basics, they are put into 1v1 trials where they must use what the skills they have developed to beat a one or multiple defenders. This is not meant to be easy, but repetition of skills previously acquired in tough situations helps the players become critical thinkers and problem solvers under pressure in the low stakes environment of training, where they can make mistakes and learn from them.

Once the players get comfortable with completing those drills, the focus is diverted to completing them with speed and urgency. Players are given drills with and without the ball to improve speed, agility, and sharpen decision making.

As the package starts coming together, players are given an opportunity to hone their instincts around the goal. The heavy focus once again being on technique and repetition.

It all comes together in the group activities. Players have gradually developed their skills, finally they are tested in putting them together in large group, game simulation activities.

Becoming widespread

Byer’s school eventually grew to over 100 campuses throughout Japan, but his biggest break was yet to come.

With Japan and Korea co-hosting the 2002 World Cup, broadcasters and the Japanese Football Association wanted to use the lead up to the event to ramp up excitement. In 1998, television executives added a short, football-focused bit to top-rated program at the time Oha Suta, and they asked the popular Tom Byer to host it.

That catapulted Byer’s reach from a few hundred kids at a time to millions. It also boosted the popularity of his coaching schools, methods, and products such as training DVDs, making him an iconic football figure in the country.

It did not end there, as Byer was also given a regular two page spread in comic book KoroKoro Komikku, a cultural institution in Japan, once again with a reach of millions. By the end of the 2002 World Cup, Byer was not just a football coach, but a popular culture phenomenon.

Byer himself has done some serious grassroots engagement over the years. He has been quoted stating “I have personally done more than 2000 events for more than half a million children across the country”.

With technology developing, Byer is still spreading his message through his T3 academy that has a strong focus not just on face to face clinics, but delivering his curriculum through multimedia platforms.

The results

Byer did not plan to have this effect on a country’s culture when he began. A perfect storm of opportunities, dedication, and luck combined to give him the platform he got.

He started his clinics in the late 80s, and a decade later in 1998, the Japanese men’s national team made its first World Cup Group Stage. Interest in football spiked after the 2002 World Cup, with Japan making it out of the Group Stage and bravely going out to eventual semi-finalists Turkey in the Round of 16.

Football in Japan overtook baseball as the country’s favourite sport. Alongside its growing popularity, football was always at the forefront of children’s minds as it was a year long commitment, but also affordable for parents, with an average price for an under-12 player of $45 AUD per month.

Byer continued to influence young footballers, with many elite Japanese players referencing watching his show or attending his clinics.

These names include, Japan women’s national team legend and World Cup winner Aya Miyama, icon Keisuke Honda, and former Manchester United player Shinji Kagawa, who even mentioned Byer in a feature on a Manchester United matchday program during his time at the club.

Japan women’s national team legend Aya Miyama and her medals with mentor Tom Byer. (Image: Tom Byer)

The Japanese national team sides have not missed a World Cup Tournament since Byer came into prominence. The highlight of this period being 2011, when the men won the Asian Cup and the women won the World Cup.

Despite Byer’s overwhelming success, the Japanese Football Association does not subscribe to just one curriculum for player development. Instead of mandating one way of operating, they have have diverted their focus to ensuring all the decisions made are putting the “player first”.

This is one of the mission statements that can be found on the JFA website:

“When thinking about players development, there is an important motto that we must absolutely keep in mind. That is ‘Players First!’, namely, ‘think of players first.'”

“When making decisions on various levels day after day, or when difficult challenges occur during reforms etc., we must always return to these words. There may be many problems and difficulties. But we should try to overcome these problems and difficulties and think matters always keeping in mind what is best for children.”

The Japanese Football Association stands by the motto, “we must not care [about] victories or defeats in domestic matches, we must always consider the world as standard”, Japan has broken down overcoming issues in three categories.

Japan’s approaches for overcoming issues. (Image: Japan Football Association)

The main takeaway is that youth development is part of all three categories of issues, and is always central to its work.

Fans may be concerned with issues like national team form or the coaching performance, but its success as a nation will always be internally judged in how the country compares with the rest of the world. That all begins with laying solid foundations in youth development.

These days, football in Japan continues its strong trajectory, with J-League sides investing in grassroots football as they recruit players as young as 11-years-old. Japanese football development comes in three stages, depending on player ability, local, regional and national elite training.

The Japanese Football Association launched the Prince Takamado U-18 Premier League in 2011 to ensure young players play in a high quality competition, with around 360 games played annually across all nine regions of Japan. The competition culminates with the top sides facing each other, often in front of thousands of fans.

Japanese youth development has a strong showing in Europe, with Takehiro Tomiyasu being a revelation for Arsenal, while Ange Postcoglou signed three more Japanese players at Celtic after the impressive start to life as a Bhoy for Kyogo Furuhashi. The J-League remains one of the premier Asian domestic competitions.

What can Australia learn?

Is Japan’s football development perfect? The short answer is no.

There are issues with the high expectations placed on young footballers, with coaches being driven by targets and expectations which may lead to less talented players being starved for opportunity. Despite some shortcomings, Australia can take some pages out of Japan’s strong focus on youth development.

Let’s start with the role of Tom Byer. His humble start is not unlike what is happening in Australia right now. A lot of former players such as Marcelo Carrusca, Cassio, Kew Jaliens and many other ex-players and coaches are running clinics for young footballers to attend along with their regular club training.

The challenge is getting those sort of intensive, focused clinics widespread across the footballing community. This has to come from clubs, schools, Football Australia, and outside investors who care about the game developing.

That leads to the quality of coaching. If you cannot master the basics, rushing through the stages can leave young footballers with evident holes in their game which can be extremely hard to fill when they become older.

Before tactics and general play, it is crucial that young footballers master the basics. There is a reason the Japanese footballers are often praised for their immaculate technique.

Lowering the cost of football participation is of paramount importance. Football is the most widely participated sport in the country, despite the fact that parents’ average spend nationally was $783.78 per child for the football season, with prices up to $2000 not unheard of.

That fee is for approximately half a year, compared to Japan’s approximate $45 a month average for an under-12 footballer, which is a year round commitment. Participation does not always result in a professional footballer, but more often than not, a life-long fan, something we cannot afford lose in this country.

With Japanese clubs recruiting from the age of 11, they must put time and effort into grassroots football to improve the standard of their future players, and that includes investing in full academies.

A-Leagues clubs do their best to spend an afternoon with multiple local clubs. While it is a memorable experience for a lot of those young footballers but in terms of football development, it does not achieve much.

In Australia, we have the National Training Centre (NTC), which identifies and develops standout young footballers who may have an opportunity at a professional football career. It is important that young footballers are given the opportunity and resources to develop at their full potential before being identified as a ‘talent’.

This fact highlights Japan’s ‘player first’ approach. It is not about prioritising who scouts view as a ‘talent’, but giving every young footballer an equal opportunity to become one.

In Australia, we see profit being prioritised over the benefit of young footballers, and it is something that can be seen from the very top of the football pyramid all the way down to grassroots football.

Finally, with the 2023 Women’s World Cup approaching, Australia finds itself finely poised in a position similar to Japan before 2002. This will be the first time Australia has hosted a major international football competition.

With women’s football and the Matildas as popular as ever, drawing a record crowd in Sydney in November, young footballers will be watching.

Nothing beats representation, seeing some of your own fellow Australians perform at a high level against the rest of the world. This is where long term fans and future players are made.

In a world more distracted than ever lays an opportunity for Football Australia to capture and maintain attention.

Children will have high hopes for their country, football will not be in a far, foreign land, it will be 30 minutes away from home. Football Australia would be wise to pull out all its tricks, be it on social media or in person to engage the hearts and minds of future footballers in the lead up to the World Cup, and of course after it.

This is a once in a generation opportunity where all the attention will be on Australia. Like Japan, this is an opportunity to create stories, memories, a culture. Time is ticking and Football Australia must take advantage of this unique opportunity which will no doubt provide long term connections, crucial to the future of our game.

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