Author’s note: Alex Chiet is the new chief technical officer of the Ontario Soccer Association.
A recently arrived native of New Zealand, he discusses the many changes in coaching and player development now being implemented at the OSA – and similar problems he has already faced in his homeland.
It’s a wide-ranging interview, but please stay with it to the end. There’s a lot of useful information here.
CSN: Canada’s been very much of a soccer island unto itself. It’s one of the very few countries that doesn’t have its own professional soccer league, which there’s very good reasons for. When you came here, what was your perception of how business has been done here in the past?
AC: I’m still putting that puzzle together. A big part of what I’m doing now is still listening and understanding. Every day, I’m still turning over things that give me a green light to understanding what happened. To capture it quickly, I suppose the words that come to mind would be fragmentation, disconnect, lack of unity and people pulling in a common direction, people who are after their own agendas rather than what’s good for the game. Those are the sorts of things I’ve seen, broadly, and I’m just trying to understand why and how that’s happening – and working on how we change that, because I think that’s one of the things that is holding the country back.
CSN: This is a great period of change at the OSA, since Ron Smale has become the president here. There’s been quite a shake-up here, and there’s been a lot of new directions taken. How would you characterize the direction the OSA is taking now?
AC: I think it’s positive. One of the big things that Ron’s been championing and supporting is that the technical department drives the plan for change and where we need to go. There’s a board meeting coming up in September where I’ll be pitching to them a plan for long-term player development – an initial plan over the next twelve months. From what I understand, that hasn’t always been the case. The technical side hasn’t guided decisions. I think it’s great we’re being given that opportunity, and now it’s a matter of making informed decisions, listening to the right people and doing consultations to take things in the right direction.
CSN: The angle we’re focusing on right now in these stories is coaching development, and the fact that there are essentially no Canadian-trained professional coaches out there – aside, perhaps, from the Montreal Impact, and they get fired every June anyway. Obviously, coaches are a huge part of player development. What is the vision now, at the OSA, for developing coaches who can help these kids become flourishing professional soccer players?
AC: I’ll go wide, and then come back to coaching. Obviously, coach development and player development are in correlation, okay? Without one, you don’t have the other. It’s critical that we get coach development right. We’ve put together an advisory technical council on how we implement long term player development (LTPD), because it’s bigger than just coaching; it’s bigger than the competitive structure. We’re looking at a holistic approach, taking into consideration referee development, coach development, player development, facilities, infrastructure, everything like that. Then out of those meetings, we identified three priorities in the short term. One being education – communication about what it is, because there’s still a lot of unawareness out there about LTPD is. Two being a vision and a competitive structure that’s going to meet the needs, and three being coaching. Coaching is one of the priorities for us, moving forward. It’s one area where you’re going to see a lot of change in the next twelve months. First and foremost, this new coaching curriculum that’s coming down from the CSA. Are you familiar with the new direction in coaching and what will be happening there?
CSN: Let’s assume that our readers aren’t, and that that’s going to be the next stop in this series.
AC: Okay, so …. Basically, in regards to long term player development, the whole coaching pathway is being reshaped to fit the philosophy. Rewriting content, looking at how it’s delivered, the approach, and making sure it’s appropriate and in line with best practice around the world. The first step in that direction is 2012, where within Ontario there’ll be four new modules: Active Start, FUNdamentals, Learning to Train and Active for Life.
CSN: That’s all right out of the CSA’s Wellness to World Cup plan?
AC: Correct. So, physical literacy coaching modules. There’s no certification. It’s more come, go through an education process more targeted at, I suppose, going on towards competitive coaching. What’s great about this stuff is now we’re giving coaching materials that are not just vertical progression. It’s horizontal and
vertical, specific to each development stage that coaches will be working with. So if you’re with kids that are 4-6 at the start, these are the sorts of things you need to be reinforcing with players in this environment. It’s all specific to the different development stages that players go through – that coaches need to be aware of.
CSN: For a concrete example, Jason de Vos is always saying we’re wasting – we’re hugely wasting – a chance, when the kids are very young, when they’re entering puberty, when they’re in their early teen years, to ground them in the fundamental physical training needed to become professional soccer players. Obviously, most of them won’t, but the players we have who will still go through that stage, and are still – he feels – being coached inadequately, and a lot of people agree with him.
AC: Correct. I completely agree. And part of that is the competitive structure, which is driving the approach of coaches. But part of that is also the coaching curriculum, which hasn’t been addressing the needs of players as they progress. So what LTPD is is that as children develop, just like in an educational setting, they have windows of opportunity where they need to get certain learning. That isn’t being recognized and worked on, and that deprives a child of the opportunity to reach their potential. So it’s critical that we get the right information to them at the right stage.
CSN: Alex, what is the population of New Zealand?
AC: Four million.
CSN: Equal to the greater Toronto area, essentially.
CSN: How many professional soccer clubs?
AC: We have a similar situation to Canada, where we have one professional team that plays in the A-League in Australia.
CSN: Okay, so the two nations have some very similar problems. New Zealand is a narrow country and a long and mountainous country, so they have geographical challenges as well. What have they done there that your experience of is going to be useful here?
AC: There’s a lot of synergy between what’s happening in the two countries. Obviously different scale, and the population’s different. In regard to that, there’s been a whole new approach and philosophy coaching that’s been introduced that I’ve been part of. This is what’s now happening here with LTPD and the new coaching courses. Previously, my understanding is that New Zealand and other countries have had a coaching course – it’s an ex-player, a qualified player, someone that’s been through the trenches and has a wonderful understanding of the game. So you take a course, this is what you do, and off you go, go do it. But there’s a shift now. We need that information, but the shift is towards the how. How do you understand the player? The needs of the player? The environment of the player? So I suppose the big experience that I’ve been though in New Zealand is shifting that philosophy, and people understanding that there’s a more beneficial way to learn to affect what’s going on. Because as a coach, you don’t make decisions out on the field. The player does. You can shape and mold that environment, but ultimately the player needs to be involved in the learning process.
CSN: One of the things that concerns me – since we’re talking long term – is that in Canada we still have that real shortage of professional clubs. There will be, therefore, a shortage of Canadian coaches who can even get those jobs at all. Right now, a lot of them go to the Aron Winters and the Bob de Klerks, so it’s difficult to break through. Similar problem in New Zealand, I would think?
AC: Well, obviously there’s professional coaches at the various age-group levels, and then there’s one professional team. And the national men’s coach is also the coach of the Phoenix, which is the professional team! I think you have to look at what you’re trying to develop – and how – and trying to accelerate and fast-track looking at personal growth and development, targeting people, sufficient planning and having a vested interest in their development, getting them to other places to experience different environments, and then looking at opportunities for them within the province and nationally. I think that’s the only way that people are going to grow and learn. Yes, we need to develop more Canadian coaches that understand the culture and the people. Part of that is gathering other experiences from other parts of the world, and bringing that back into the solutions here.
CSN: Now this is being modeled, obviously, on the CSA’s Wellness to World Cup plan, which is the first national vision we’ve really had in a while. A lot of the things that have happened in Canada in the last ten years have really happened because a professional team arrived, or a pro team started an academy, or an academy forced its way into being recognized – in other words, without a lot of direction or leadership from above. TFC Academy is a factor, Montreal and Vancouver are doing this, too. I’m sure FC Edmonton will do this as well at some point, if they stick around. Does the OSA run the risk of being pushed out of the main plot-line by the efforts that are being taken by professional clubs and private academies?
AC: I suppose there’s a risk, but our approach to things at the moment, in the planning and conceptual stages – there’s always going to be a professional element of the game, but our vision is for the professional and amateur sides of the game to work hand-in-hand. There’s so much that we’re doing that’s complementary to what they’re trying to achieve. If we can form closer relationships and understand what each other’s doing for our mutual benefit, I think there’s definitely a place to work closer together rather than working against each other. We’ve got this huge base of participation, which we’ve got to do a much better job of educating and training, and if we can get that right – which is going to be hard work – there’s some really positive signs that we’re moving in the right direction, that the OSA board’s prepared to back the technical direction and make the changes that are required.
CSN: I think the fear from out here is that obviously the majority – the vast majority – of soccer in Canada is club soccer, amateur soccer, recreational you can even call it. The significant majority of coaches we develop are obviously going to go that way. And as they move toward their Canadian A-licences, as they move towards working with the national teams – let’s face it: international men’s soccer at the top level is a professional game. They are professional players, they have careers, they play at a professional level and they have professional expectations. That’s the void I’m afraid that we’re not filling when we don’t have Canadian coaches out there in the global professional game.
AC: So you think there’s just a huge gap in the transition between amateur coaches to international ones, and we can’t bring enough through to get that experience?
CSN: Or how long it’s going to take, given the practical reality of the shortage of professional teams in Canada.
AC: Yeah. Look, there’s some obvious challenges there. But I think we can only take a glass-half-full approach, look at what we’ve got, and try to put plans and strategies in place to address those things. The things that we’re talking about, the things that we’re working on, will help create more professional paid positions in the game – maybe not at the international level, but within a development level. Yes, you need professional elite coaches, but you also need different coaches at each development level. We need to raise the standards and expectations – and qualifications – of people that are working with the players of the future.
CSN: We also have people who have come from other countries, with professional coaching experience, and some of them have told me they’re frustrated because they feel like the doors aren’t open here. And part of it is the old Old Boys Club at the CSA, which is fading away. But I think there’s a real frustration among people who already have A-licences from various other places in the world that there hasn’t been a role for them. How do we fix that?
AC: I think that’s part of the technical qualifications – ensuring that we recognize and acknowledge qualifications from other places. It’s all legitimate. There are things that we need to look at in more detail, and we’re looking into ways of doing that. But I also think some of the frustrations have been from these coaches, and some I’ve talked to as well, is that all the things that we’re now changing have been in place for thirteen-plus years, and for coaches coming to the system and the way things have been has been frustrating. They probably found it very annoying that things were done the ways they were. With that all changing, there’ll be more opportunities for these people. They’ll already be a few steps ahead. They have a technical expertise that our kids need to benefit from.
CSN: Let me ask you, also: The traditional route in Canada for player development has been the provincial teams. This always struck me as very strange, because if you just take Southern Ontario, from Windsor to the edge of the suburbs of Montreal, we’re talking about an area the size of Great Britain. And that’s a place where you have literally hundreds of professional soccer teams. Moving forward, with academies now on the rise, with Toronto FC Academy which is obviously a professional environment, is Ontario’s provincial team going to continue to be the focus of player development as far as the OSA is concerned?
AC: We’re looking at all these things now. We’re looking at LTPD implementation and what will be needed in the future. Competitive structure is one of those things – for every player. When we change things, it will change the format of what is happening, which means there will need to be changes to co-ordinate what’s happening. We know there are challenges with the provincial program currently, in regard to access due to geography, narrowing the number of players too soon, talent exclusion. One thing I will say, though, is at the moment, at the top end of things, we’ve just got complete fragmentation and disconnection. There’s TFC, there’s CSL, there’s academies, there’s the provincial program – all these different providers, all basically working in opposition to each other, rather than working together. We have a small percentage of talent, and we really need to come together at the top end as well, to understand what’s best for the player. It may be there’s a first choice, a second choice, a third choice. How we fix it is a big challenge, because of all the different business models in play. But at the end of the day, what’s most important is the player.
CSN: Toronto FC, for example, as a professional club, is doing what ambitious professional clubs do all over the world – trying to set up an academy and bring their own players in, work them into their system and have them there when they need them. It seems to me it’s going to be hard to alter that, or ask them to change that.
AC: We’ve had discussions, and we’re bound to be having more. There’s many ways that we can work together, and if we can change things and do things in a more professional way – which is what we’re working toward – it’s only going to benefit what they are trying to do. And it might mean that they can work with us even more directly. These are the things we need to get around a table and discuss.
CSN: Do you look out on that giant field at OSA headquarters in Vaughan sometimes, and see kids in their early teens or young children, and wonder “Is what I’m doing here today going to help one or two of those kids play in a World Cup someday?”
AC: Oh, definitely. It’s what we’re all here for – working for the children, ensuring that the problems I experienced as a player in New Zealand, that every Canadian experienced in the previous structures, aren’t there. A parent bringing a player to a club at five or six years old should know there’s a clear pathway, and that we know what needs to be done. And given the right opportunity, players will progress rather than there being barriers and blockages along the way. We’ve got to come together, and work together on a solution, rather than working against each other. And that’s what drives what we’re trying to achieve.
Also in this series:
- Charlie Cuzzetto interview
- Frank Yallop interview
- Ron Davidson interview
- Rafael Carbajal's vision
- Some preliminaries
- Canadian coaching: a new CSN investigation