Youth development guru Tom Byer sows seeds in Singapore

Youth development guru Tom Byer sows seeds in Singapore
Tom Byer, a renowned football youth development coach, showing 40 children from the ActiveSG Football Academy how to execute a skill move at Bedok Stadium on Saturday, November 12, 2016. Photos: Stanley Ho/TODAY
Inspired by his methods, ActiveSG Football Academy will start coaching kids between 3 and 5 next year
Published: 5:39 PM, November 13, 2016

SINGAPORE – He is credited with Japan’s rise into an Asian football powerhouse in the 1990s and has been tasked by China to overhaul the country’s youth development system. Now, in a small way, Tom Byer is helping to do the same for Singapore football.

Over the past week, the Tokyo-based American – who made his name in world football as a forward-thinking youth development coach – was in Singapore imparting his knowledge and experience to more than 120 youth coaches at the Sport Singapore headquarters at the Singapore Sports Hub.

He also ran the rule over local youth talent at the Singa Cup - a home-grown international youth football tournament featuring 69 teams from Australia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and hosts Singapore.

On Saturday, together with former Singapore international Aleksandar Duric and his team of ActiveSG Football Academy coaches, Byer conducted a coaching clinic at Bedok Stadium for more than 40 children.

Speaking to TODAY after the coaching clinic, Byer said it is clear Singaporean kids are technically behind their Japanese counterparts, but he is open to working with local coaches and organisations like ActiveSG in future to help bridge that gap.

“It’s a pleasure being able to work with such a football legend like Aleksandar Duric who has taken such a great initiative to start this kind of football school that is focused on grassroots, small kids, one player one ball,” said the 55-year-old, whose experience with coaching kids spans over 25 years.

“I’m here trying to show some different things and trying to help the coaches, the kids and the parents, to show them what they can do based on the experience gained from the years that I’ve worked as a technical coach.

”It’s about slowly and surely trying to influence the influencers – the coaches, administrators and parents. The past few days in Singapore I have shown the local youth coaches that the focus should be on skill development more than anything else, because skill development is the road to retention, for retaining kids in the game, because they have more fun when they play.

“And the earlier you get them out here the better. We have here in Bedok a couple of three-year-olds playing with a small ball each. It was great as, after I showed Alek and his ActiveSG team how it could be done, they went out, got the small balls and are keen to get it started.”

Inspired by Byer’s methods, ActiveSG Football Academy will start an Under-5 skills training programme for all its six centres - Bedok, Jurong East, Kallang, Queenstown, Serangoon and Woodlands - from January next year.

“We have been thinking about starting programmes for kids under five for a while, as it was clear learning basic skills at six is already quite late,” said Duric, the principal of ActiveSG Football Academy. “We have many kids joining us at six or seven years old who lack basic coordination and movement. So we want to change that.

“After spending a few days with Tom and exchanging ideas, I realised we are on the same page on how we should develop children."

Duric said the programme will not be anything competitive and it will be all about fun.

"The important thing is to let the little kids go outdoors, have fun for 45 minutes to an hour, to enjoy learning skills and grow their love for the sport. This is an important aspect of building a sporting culture in Singapore,” he said.

Byer has been so successful with his grassroots training programmes and in expanding the Japanese talent pool over the past 20 years — and ensuring Japan’s national teams qualify for the Asian Cup and World Cup regularly — the Chinese government has poached him to do likewise for the world’s most-populous country.  

Fuelled by Chinese president Xi Jinping’s dream for China to win the World Cup by 2030, the Chinese government appointed Byer as Head Technical Advisor for the Chinese School Football Programme Office in 2014. The programme aims to widen the talent pool of top youth footballers in China to an estimated 250,000 by 2025.

However, taking pains to stress that youth development is “a marathon and not a sprint”, Byer said it’s unrealistic for Singaporeans to expect a rise in football standards overnight to match that of the Japanese and the Chinese.

“This is a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just bring a bunch of foreign guys here for them to show a bunch of drills and expect your kids to suddenly all start to play football,” said Byer.

“But I could see that people here - like Alek and his ActiveSG team - are eager to try and make change. So I’m very optimistic that things will get better for Singapore football.”