Player development starts with coaching development

by Ben Rycroft,  01-23-2013


It has been written here before – and frankly it will continue to be espoused for some time – but if there was a silver lining to last year’s 8-1 loss to Honduras it was that it made Canada take stock of where it is in the world. Or more accurately, where it is in CONCACAF. That has spawned various conversations. Some out-the-box, some crack pot, some more practical.

The more practical have focused on what can be done right now – most notably on improving our coaching and player development. This week, on the newly minted podcast Counter Attack, there is a good discussion (starting at 21:00) on player development, how it relates to our World Cup success (or lack thereof) and getting over the proverbial ‘hump.’ Additionally, Jason deVos at TSN has been banging the drum for some time now on the need for a high performance league and why we need to change the recreational mentality in this country.

By recreational, he is referring to the volunteer force that is largely being deployed to develop the next generation of players that will lead us to a World Cup. Something that, frankly, is never going to happen when the soccer Mom’s and Dad’s who coach them are at best, qualified to bring the kids to practice and supply them with juice boxes.

If you’re going to talk about re-defining how we develop players, then you have to talk about re-defining how we develop coaches to assist in that grooming. I reached out to Thomas Rongen, head of Toronto FC’s Academy and former head coach of the U.S. U-20 team, to talk about what he sees as things Canada can do to change the culture.

“That 8-1 loss hit hard for people in this country. Sometimes it takes a watershed moment to force people to make change. I think that game alone made people think that we have to look hard at the provincial programs, we need to look hard at coaching education and we need to look hard at long term player development,” Rongen said. “Canada is ready to make changes. They have a new president. They have a new technical director who is going to go a different route. I’m glad they’re going away from the provincial programs because it hasn’t worked for them.”

The provincial programs have long been charged with not doing enough to develop the elite level players in this country. The training they get a few weeks a year – where they are pulled away from their clubs to be put in high performance centres – just isn’t a model that works anymore.

“For a long time in the U.S. we had the REP program – pay to play – similar to the provinces here. It didn’t reach out to certain parts of the soccer family, that went unnoticed because they couldn’t afford to pay for the travel, or play at the bigger clubs where the best players were,” Rongen said. “Again, referencing the 8-1 loss, it really clearly spells out that Canada isn’t developing the players it perhaps once was when they qualified in 1986, or perhaps has never. That in itself tells me that the system isn’t working. And at the end of the day, if you look at the world, coaches still make the players.”

The development of coaches starts with a commitment from the clubs and the CSA to seek more. The badges and licenses here are focused too heavily on nutrition and health and not enough on the tactics of the game. There are very few, even with the CSA, who will say that the coaching programs in North America are suitable to train a coach so that they are capable of leading an elite level team.

“We’re sending Danny Dichio and hopefully one other coach to France for a two year UEFA course. Where you go for a few weeks a year, you do practical sessions and you to go to three or four pro teams and you report back and run sessions,” Rongen said. “It’s very hard for me to imagine that in a weekend, week or 10 day course, which is done in North America in general, you can produce some high quality coaches.”

Rongen didn’t mince words when he addressed the lack of commitment by some in the region when it came to development and coaching development.

“There are some very big local clubs around here but I hate to say it, but it’s still not done the way it’s supposed to be done. We invest $1.2 million in our Academy every year.”

That may seem like a lot. And for many clubs it is. But when you look at the biggest youth clubs in the region and across Canada, those with massive registration numbers, they are more than capable of investing in the development of coaches and ensuring their professional infrastructure provides the best environment for growth.

“It becomes an incubator. You’re going to develop great players. And then when you give them good training, and meaningful games, their potential is massive,” Rongen said. “And that’s something, with the high performance league that is starting next year, that we hope to be able to provide more of. With our younger players getting into those high performance games we’ll be able to produce a higher quality of player. But clubs here have to invest in the infrastructure and that means coaching.”

That may be received by some as either overly ambitious or cocky, but in a country that has long been short on vision, it is at least offering an honest assessment of what Canada can strive for.

“(At Toronto FC) we’re far from where we need to be. But we need to be the leaders in terms of player development and also in coaching development… We are demonstrating that now by committing a budget to the coaching education we do,” Rongen said.

And what’s it going to take to get there? What will drive the clubs to see the need for better coaches here?

“That those that are doing it show results. That us as Toronto FC are able and capable to produce players for our first team. Home grown players are becoming ever more important because the college ranks and the draft, in terms of quality, is getting less and less,” Rongen said. “And that we are able to produce players for our national teams too.”

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