This blog entry highlights my own personal experiences as a club Technical Director, and now as my role as the Academy TD of FC Edmonton. It is meant more than anything to start a discussion about what we can locally to improve player development. In this article I am actually talking about me personally, my experiences as a TD, my mistakes, my vision, and my own personal opinion on what I would try to do differently. I suppose that this could also be an information piece for parents, who may or may not have any experience in the game themselves. Perhaps this article will make them ask questions and more importantly seek out answers as to what the technical development of their child could look like.
About a year ago, I had the very fortunate opportunity to shadow our U17 National Men’s team to a camp in Guatemala City and San Salvador. The guest visit is not just about watching coaches run a training session, you can go to YouTube for that, it is about the discussions on the game, the discussions about their playing philosophy, and about what they look for in players and to get an idea of the level of play that I need to get my players to. I feel that as the Technical Director of FC Edmonton’s Academy, it is my responsibility to our young players who commit and make sacrifices to be in our program, to our club owners, and to our national association who awarded me my license, to do everything I can to get my players into national youth team camps, then of course to our first team or scholarship opportunities. Part of this responsibility requires an understanding of what the next level is looking for in players. We can talk about the four pillars of development all we want, but if we do not know what they look like at the next level, how can we possible claim to develop them? The CSA has released a defined player pathway to get into national programs, and as a professional academy, we are simply one part of a very important process. It is this last sentence that drives my thoughts within this article, and the acknowledgement that our Academy is simply a small part of the process, in partnership with grassroots, with the clubs, and with the national youth teams who at the end of the day validate whether or not we are doing a good enough job in our Academy.
While we wait for the Canadian Soccer Association to come out with a national curriculum and the political landscape to change so that this country can sit alongside pretty much every other one that has top down governance, it will be up to the local associations and clubs to drive coach and player development. Wanting to keep this article as positive as possible, I will save my rants about the need for technical people to be making the decisions that affect the top players for another blog; however, many of the points I will bring up in this article will require board members and perhaps technical directors to change how they view club soccer and specifically coach and player development. So going forward with this article, it will be based on our current landscape which for the moment is still very much going to be locally driven.
Along my coaching journey, it was the Southwest Sting that first gave me a chance to work as a technical director. I had great ideas of how I wanted to transform the club, putting an emphasis on grass roots player development, and bringing in the next wave of top young coaches. While my visions were great, my execution was not. Sure, I brought in some good, but inexperienced coaches to work with our young players every weekend. These coaches were ex-national training center players who were meant to be positive mentors and admittedly, provide a wow factor when parents looked at who was working with their young children. While the staff did a decent job of running individual technical stations, it didn’t take me long to see that this isolated technical training, once per week, was actually having little effect. I also tried to put on coaching workshops, but for these, two or three coaches from the club would show up and those events quickly faded. While wanting desperately to do the right thing, I failed in what for me should have been the first priority, developing a club philosophy that detailed our standards and playing philosophy throughout the club. The technical training sessions were always planned and well executed, but they were once per week, with the players then all going to their individual teams and what was worked on during the weekend, was lost during the week. It was not from a lack of trying or time spent on trying to make my program at Sting work, it was a lack of my creating a club model that led to my failure in this position and was the reason that I submitted my resignation. Some important lessons sunk in with the experience with the main one being that a technical director has to be more than simply putting on technical sessions once a week to give the impression of player development.
When given my next opportunity to work as a Technical Director by the Victoria Soccer Club, the Sting job was always in the back of my mind of how not to be a TD. In this position, the first document I created was the Victoria Way, a document that detailed a club philosophy on playing style and mandated certain game requirements, such as playing with four in the back. All of the technical programs were laid out from after-school drop in technical sessions and open playtime, to a Friday night finishing school for forwards and keepers, to coaching education workshops, and full team technical and tactical sessions. To fix my mistakes of the past, I was driven to create a club whose coaches were all working from the same base technical and tactical plan, and who put player development over their own personal aspirations of adding another trophy to that box that often sits in the basement collecting dust. By creating a club model and style of play my goal was to then be able to tie in technical training to each team. There would be a process and direction for our technical training to adhere to and players would advance though our club, hitting development targets as they progressed through our age groups. I will openly admit that getting buy-in from the returning coaching staff proved difficult and I did lose a few coaches, one who refused to play with four in the back! The other challenge of course was trying to sell my vision, and then convince long serving coaches that I now only wanted them to work with one age group. During my one year at Vic, the process was started but was slow going. Perhaps the biggest obstacle in making change is convincing others that change takes time, just as player development does, and that patience for a better future, means struggles today. Unfortunately or fortunately, my work at Victoria was cut short when I accepted my position with FC Edmonton, so while I was not able to see this project out, I still feel strongly about what I was trying to build.
This type of direction I wanted to take at Victoria was also based on my belief that we have too few real clubs, and by this I mean a club that is more than a collection of individual teams who only share the organizations logo. I wonder how many clubs out there have coaches who have never met other coaches in their own club? Like my work with the Sting, putting on once a week generic technical sessions looks great to the parents who have to pay extra for technical training, but unless that one hour a week training is part of a full club model is it really helping? My own personal experience suggest that it does not, but perhaps there are others out there who do a better job than I did with the once per week technical work and I will hold my hands up to them. We also have a tendency in our current club culture where coaches take a team at U10 and continue with those players until U18. One coach, who may or may not have completed any coach education over that eight-year period, is somehow able to coach elite players at every age group and stage of their development. When you say that to yourself a few times, you can see how ridiculous that really is. For me, a club would put coaches where their skills and personal traits suggest they are best at. If I use myself as an example, I can coach U10 and U12 players, but that is not where I will be best utilized and it would certainly not be in the best interest of the players when compared to some of the master coaches at these age groups. There are many coaches right here in Edmonton that I believe are brilliant U10/12 coaches, so that is where they should be and once those kids hit U14/16/18 give me a call. When a club model is put in place, a development curriculum can be put into place, with age-specific specialists hitting development targets with their players, before graduating them to the next age group and the next age-specific coach. I have heard arguments that clubs are lucky to find enough volunteer parents to coach, so this is not realistic, but I don’t support this. I believe that adult ego has as much to do with not wanting to work with just one age group, with a mentality that these are my players, and with that same ego-driven mentality that puts a club national title as the highlight of a coaching career. When I think of my first few years coaching, I will be honest enough to admit that I would not have been impressed with this suggestion either. The real question I suppose, is how do we convince this same adult that he/she is actually best at working with U10s and then passing those players on to another who is stronger at working with U12s? As we are now seeing HPL leagues open up, and the rise in paid technical staff, I believe that this club model of age group coaches is more than achievable. Perhaps it is a blending whereby one coach, out of necessity, does take a team from U10 to U18, but an age-specific technical staff coach works in each age group to drive the progression of the player. I don’t think that I can now be accused of not compromising! I have also seen many clubs that have several paid technical staff coaches that work a few times a week with the club and make decent part-time money to do so. Why not assign each of these coaches an age group, have that coach be the age-specific coach and bring in assistant coaches to mentor under them, here everybody wins. Players get developed and so do coaches.
When I also talk about adopting a club mentality and that club creating a technical and tactical model to work off of, this for me puts player development at the forefront of club goals. I mentioned earlier that my club model at Victoria required all of the teams to play with four defenders and adopt a mentality to play out of the back. My rationale for this was based on giving these players every opportunity to be prepared to move on to a higher level. At the time, our provincial association and the Canadian national programs played with four defenders and the years of simply playing deep and battling for second balls were long gone. In wanting to give Victoria players every chance of progressing to a higher level, I was going to make sure they already realized the ASA and CSA playing principles. For our young players to be prepared to play in the future game and at a higher level, it is our responsibility to provide them with the tools they will need. I still do not understand it when I see youth teams playing with a sweeper. What are we doing to prepare this player to move forward in the game? A sweeper typically just sits back, wins challenges, and kicks the ball away. In what program in Alberta would we be preparing this player for, surely not mine! If we are going to preach player development then we must learn what we are developing them for. At the moment, our Academy sits on the Canadian player pathway. If a player in Edmonton is going to reach the highest levels of the game, they will at some point most likely go through our program, or the Whitecaps residency. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant or that we are solely responsible for a players success, but rather acknowledge that we are simply a stop along the way that first started at the grass roots level, then with one of the clubs in the city, and finally the provincial program. Because we do not see players until they are fifteen, we rely on the clubs for the technical development of every player in our Academy. This point also then amplifies the need for a better working relationship between all stakeholders of the young developing player. This is an area that I need to do a better job of personally, and that is to ensure that the clubs and provincial coaches know exactly what it is that we look for in a potential player for the FCE Academy. Just as I highlighted my guest visit to the CSA to find out what was required to get the FCE Academy players invited to national camps, I feel that the same must happen between all soccer stops along the development pathway.
I have acknowledged before that our Academy got off to a rocky start where it related to creating relationships with the local clubs and it is an area that we must work hard at to rectify to this day. And on this note, I have been trying to create a coaching roundtable to bring together coaches from different clubs and at different stages in their coaching careers. This last point is simply to illustrate a need for coaches to come together and certainly for club TDs to meet to discuss the game. As technical people, we all say that we don’t want to get involved in politics but perhaps that is exactly what we need to do. I am not suggesting that we all hang up the boots to enter the boardroom, but who better to drive programming and league scheduling than those with the technical background to make player centered decisions? I am somewhat ignorant in my current knowledge of the running of associations, and this is legitimate question; but is having a Technical Directors committee a normal thing or does that just not exist? If there is a TDs committee then surely they can start to make recommendations towards training to game ratios, coaching education initiatives, and player development issues with those that sit on the boards and make the final decisions. Even when it comes to scheduling, surely technical people can drive home the need for change for the club teams. At the age groups that these associations deal with, it cannot be argued that one game per week is optimal when combined with two, three, or four training sessions based on age. I appreciate that rain outs and access to city fields determine scheduling somewhat, but when two games in a week or no games for three weeks was part of the initial scheduling process, how is this skewed towards player development? Scheduling must be an incredibly daunting job, one that I wouldn’t want, but if the initial focus was based solely on the LTPD model, then there must be a way for our top players to play once per week, such as would happen in provincially run high performance leagues. I can appreciate that there will always be rivalries within clubs to do well; however, that shouldn’t negate the need for soccer people to come together to grow the game together. If technical directors, those who are supposed to be the most versed in the game, those with proper coaching licenses, and those whose salaries would suggest an expertise, cannot come together, then who can we look to for any direction on how to improve the game. And this brings home my initial thoughts about changing what we do locally. It has become too easy to simply blame the CSA for not taking a leading role in player development with a national curriculum, new governance structure, etc. The real leaders for change are actually right here in our local communities and while lots of clubs are currently doing a good job and pushing players on, getting players scholarships, or invited to pro academies, the real question to be debated is can we all be doing better?
If you are reading this part, then congrats for having the energy and patience to get through this full article. My personality when it comes to youth development in Canada tends to be glass half full, and I appreciate that my scenarios are best-case scenarios. I prefer the optimistic approach to improving player development, because it has been too easy to simply accept status quo and find all the reasons of why we shouldn’t attempt change. I also have a lot of respect for those that currently serve as technical directors in Edmonton, so no judging is meant from this article, but perhaps a call for these people to get together to drive change. Currently, many of our clubs in Edmonton have done a good job at the development of players, and the success in my program wouldn’t be there if not for the work already done at the club level. This blog entry however, was never meant to be a condemnation of what is currently wrong, but rather a challenge to see if we can all come together to make things better at the local levels, instead of sitting back and simply waiting for the CSA and continuously blaming them.