Ciaran, thank you so much for taking the time to allow us to conduct this interview – to start, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am the current technical director for the Kamloops Youth Soccer Association. We provide soccer programs to over 3900 players over 12 months. I started in this role in March of 2014. I started out as a mechanical engineer (my first degree) but soon went back to university for a B.Ed in Elementary education. After finishing my B.Ed I decided to focus full time on coaching (at a time when it wasn’t really recognized as a profession). I then expanded my education further by pursuing an M. Ed in Coaching Studies and am also completing my CSA A License.
Can you expand a bit on your playing and coaching background?
I grew up in White Rock playing for Peace Arch Soccer Club, where most of my memories of my youth soccer experiences were solidified. After high school I moved onto senior men’s soccer in both the VMSL and FVSL. I have always been a recreational player; I wanted more but missed out on most of the technical and psychological guidance that many youngsters need to develop their game further.
I have been coaching soccer for over 20 years. It all started with a grade 8 to 10 team at my high school that a friend started when we were in grade 11. I followed that up with various other youth teams at my local club where my mother was the registrar (I think my mother connection to the club was a key factor in my deeper involvement with coaching).
I continued to volunteer my time to coach during university and grew my resume team by team by coaching boys and girls, mini’s youth and adults, recreational, competitive, provincial and collegiate teams.
I enjoy coaching both kids and adults and working with parents to help guide and educate them on the options and pathways available to help improve their child’s love for the game.
How did you get into coaching – what was the defining moment that made you realise this is what you wanted to do?
I have always been a helper, facilitator, educator so coaching comes naturally to me. I can remember the first moment a kid did something new in a game that I had helped them achieve. I was young (17 or 18) and had been coaching for a couple of season but had only really accumulated about 50 or 60 hours of practice and game experience and only had the most basic of coaching certifications. I was ecstatic when the kid pulled off this move (a simple pull back to protect the ball from an opponent but it was something that kid never did). The kid was ecstatic too, and thanked me for that. That was my first real ‘high’ from coaching and one of the reasons I kept doing it.
As a profession, I decided to pursue coaching shortly after completing my B.Ed. I was struggling with the lack of teaching jobs available and comparing that to the opportunity to grow soccer programs and I was determined not to try and do both but to focus on one. I chose to focus full time on coaching – it just seemed like a natural decision for me.
Who was / is your biggest influence?
I have many.
I am a big fan of Horst Wein and his game based approach to developing technical execution and tactical decision making. His material helped me see how you can organize an activity to bring out the skills you want to see without having to intervene as a coach (simplicity in design).
I took my NCCP level 3 and C License courses (last millennium) with Dave Dew (former National team and WFC coach). He strongly influenced the professional and organized approach to my coaching, I grew up playing for Chris Johnson and he was one of the first instructors I had for my NCCP level 1 & 2 theory courses. He emphasized the fun side to coaching and how to view the player as a whole person rather than just a soccer player.
Finally, there is Jane, a single mother in her 40’s who was on a women’s team I coached when I was 19. She set my foundation in player psychology when I struggled to get through to her one day when she turned and stated ever so calmly “Ciaran, I have kids your age, you can’t tell me what to do, you have to convince me to want to do it!”.
Finally there are all those volunteer parents who coach their own kids – it is such a challenging situation to walk that line between coach and parent. I don’t have kids yet but I am worried that I may not be able to perform as well as they do should I ever coach my own kids.
There seems to be a bit of a misconception on what a Technical Director actually does – can you shed some light on what your typical day is like when you have your TD hat on?
Admin, planning, coordinating, anticipating program needs, providing feedback, sourcing, mentoring and developing coaching staff and office staff, creating budgets, bookkeeping, meeting with parents, meeting with players, meeting with coaches, meeting with referee associations, meeting with city officials, practice planning, monthly planning, emails, phone calls, scheduling exhibition games and coordinating tournaments, connecting with regional TD’s to grow leagues and relationships long term, connecting with BCSPL and BCSA TD’s and other officials to push players to higher levels, on field for 4 to 6 hours each evening either coaching myself or observing players & coaches.
Depending on the time of season I will be working between 50 to 90 hrs a week and am often working 7 days a week.
There must be days where you need to be mentally strong and push through the admin stuff which leads into this question: is enough attention being made towards the mental side of the game? We can have all the technically gifted young athletes in the world but if they don’t have situational awareness or the willingness to face adversity head on, have we missed the boat with our players?
The mental side of the game is something that is often overlooked by many of our youth coaches. Mental toughness, digging deep, being resilient, believing in yourself this is all learned behaviour that needs to be reinforced through coaches, parents, teammates and by the individual themselves.
It is a challenge for kids to develop the level of independence that build self-confidence when parents never let them out of sight and never trust them with decisions. Helicopter parents, while well meaning, take away much of the accountability that young kids need to help grow in to positive and self-aware young adults.
There is also very little coach education out there that support the development of the mental side of the game. Most of my understanding of it has come by trial and error combined with self-directed learning and experimentation.
It appears that we are identifying players at younger ages nowadays but what about those that develop at a later stage – late teens – are they missing out?
In many ways “yes” but it really depends on the program, the leadership and the individual.
I have seen a bottleneck for talent at the top levels in BC.
Look at the current structure in Canada - 5 professional clubs drawing on a population of 35 million across a geography the size of ours (1 club for every 7 million people).
Compare that to England where there are more than 40 clubs in the top two tiers of soccer alone drawing from a population of 53 million (1 club for every 1 million people).
The scouting structures are much more robust and there is simply more opportunity to be scouted somewhere else.
I have also witnessed firsthand kids who couldn’t get a sniff by an MLS program head off to Europe, get attention from the youth systems of 1st or 2nd tier clubs over there and are suddenly drawing interest from MLS programs again (if someone else wants them we should take a second look). This is not a comment on the lack of MLS clubs to ID talent but on the lack of individuals who make deciding opinions on those who are ready to step up.
You and I could look at a pool of players and have very different opinions on who will be a future star.
If you are told NO once in BC it is pretty tough to get another opinion and you eventually stop trying. Canada has players who are better than those who make our national teams, they are just never given the chance to get there because the scouting network is disconnected..
Kids (and parents) should seek feedback on where they should focus their efforts toward technical/tactical improvement. Coaches should be willing to give honest assessments of where the player stands and draw out an appropriate pathway for them to follow. Players should always seek several points of view on their level of play.
What happens at the elite levels is one extreme but there are a lot of other similar issues with our youth programming.
Top tier teams at clubs typically have access to the better facilities, equipment, coaching and training and the availability of each drops significantly as you drop down each tier of play. If you don’t get selected to the top tier program early on you tend to miss out on those benefits and you will be constantly struggling to keep up (similar to the birth year effect).
A better (but more challenging) structure to achieve is parallel programming where each tier of play is provided with the same level of service.
What about coaches? Are there enough opportunities in Canada to become a professional coach?
What do you mean by professional coach? I am a professional coach but I don’t coach a professional team.
Most clubs are hiring technical leadership and technical staff on either a FT or PT basis. Some clubs and private academies have 4 or 5 FT technical staff plus many other PT paid coaches as well as strength and conditioning staff.
There is more and more opportunity for paid work for coaches at youth clubs. When I chose to pursue coaching as a profession there were less than a handful of FT paid opportunities in BC but now there are more than I can count.
Coaching has been my only livelihood for 12 years and there is more and more opportunity to continue in this profession than when I started.
If you mean coaching professional teams this is a different scenario. Five pro clubs with growing youth and academy programs are beginning to offer more and more opportunities to become involved.
The Whitecaps and FC Edmonton continue to grow and offer opportunities for coaching opportunities. More and more CIS schools are picking up full time coaches to run their programs (or partnering with local youth clubs to create more attractive full time contracts).
The opportunities are out there but individuals have to do the work to find them and be an attractive candidate. Those in charge go with those they know so you have to get yourself known and be very capable of the job.
You have the unique perspective of coaching in the lower mainland and the interior. Any notable differences / challenges when comparing the situations? (from both the type of player perspective and on the admin side) Do you find community support the same or different in any way?
Sport in the interior is very seasonal. Soccer is a spring sport and conflicts only with baseball and girls high school soccer.
There is some overlap with hockey during the soccer pre-season (hockey post-season) and the soccer post-season (hockey pre-season).
There are also minor overlaps with basketball and volleyball.
I have begun working with the local hockey organization to work with each other on scheduling so we can avoid pulling players in two directions and instead support each other with complimentary programming.
As well, I have coordinated with the high school soccer commissioner so that we are actively working to support our players and synchronize our programs to reduce player load. Both the hockey association and high school associations have been supportive in recognizing the we share the same players.
Of course this can only be done because we operate in a closed environment. We are an hour and a half from any other association. On the coast this would be much more difficult to achieve across the board but might be attainable with the younger age groups who tend to stay very local.
Community support is much greater. In addition to what I highlighted above, the local TV, radio and print news outlets highlight our programs and accomplishments often and approach us for comments and information about the soccer world and player development.
We also use local radio to promote our soccer programs (we have a definite spike in registrations whenever one of our ads airs).
In the lower mainland, the local papers pick up community sport but the other mediums never really pick it up the way smaller communities do.
In addition, we run a free drop-in soccer program on Mondays and ask participants to bring donations for the food bank. No one comes empty handed and we have donated a lot of food from the hundreds of kids who attend each week.
Finally, one of our directors suffered a brain abscess at the beginning of the year. He almost died and has been unable to work since then although he is recovering well. The soccer community pulled together to donate over $10k to help him and his family - absolutely remarkable.
Our season is a challenge. It is 12 weeks long. About a month after everyone on the coast has finished playing we are just starting.
Our season runs from mid-April to mid-June. We play about 10 league games plus a few tournaments. That is all we really get to prepare for provincial cup.
It is a significant disadvantage.
This year will be the first year we will have our teams training and playing exhibition games in the fall. I am hoping to get 8 to 10 weeks of play (Sept to mid-Nov) before the weather turns.
We then take a hiatus until Feb when we begin with our pre-season training at our crowded indoor facility.
For our U13 and older teams this is 16 to 18 kids training for one hour on a 30x30yd patch of turf twice a week.
For our U11 and U12 teams this is 12 to 14 kids training for one hour on a 20x30yd patch of turf twice a week.
It gets tight but it works and gets our teams training twice a week with the ball for 8 weeks before we head outside to the only turf field in town for two week in April.
Player-wise, the biggest challenge is exposing them to the level of talent outside of Kamloops. The best soccer in BC is in the lower mainland.
Many of our kids (and their families) are not exposed to that level of play until U12 or U13 and it can be quite eye opening. There can be some resistance to our programming and how we are pushing the kids until our families see how far behind the lower mainland we are then it becomes easier to push them.
Administratively, KYSA is one of the largest clubs in BC.
Between all of our programs we fluctuate between 3700 to 4200 participants a year.
We have a permanent office ideally located on McArthur Island surrounded by gorgeous scenery and some of the best fields I have seen in Canada.
When we host high profile games (i.e. KYSA All-stars vs FC Edmonton), the city does an unbelievable job on the fields (to the point where it would put World Cup fields to shame).
Our club has a FT executive director, FT technical director, and three significant part time administrative assistants to handle various coordination needs on a day to day basis. This significantly reduces the amount of generic administration I have to handle and it has been an adjustment learning how to work with support staff vs being accustomed to doing everything myself (as was the case with many of my other positions). Our office is open 50 weeks out of the year.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges Technical Directors face today?
Every club’s situation is different and will have various challenges implementing their goals and objectives to see advancement.
For us in Kamloops, we struggle with geography (we are 1.5 to 2 hrs away from our nearest opponent and those are clubs a third of our size), variety in competition (4 teams in a division who play each other 4 to 6 times a season) and a very short season (our select teams have 10 weeks of competitive league play, and our house teams have 12 weeks).
Every club has their unique challenges but I would have to say the biggest challenge facing TD’s is garnering support from their Executive Board.
An ineffective Board breeds an ineffective TD.
Most TD’s are very capable at their job and very professional in their approach and require a Board that is the same. I have been involved with many Boards as either a paid coach or as a volunteer executive member myself; if the Board demonstrates strong leadership, the TD can truly accomplish what they have been hired to do.
What are your thoughts on the LTDP and what type of support are you getting from the governing bodies (both provincially and nationally)?
I fully support the LTPD as a guideline for player development in Canada.
The LTAD (known as LTPD for soccer) was researched in Canada (UVic) but was picked up by other countries (Ireland, Australia) before it was adopted in Canada.
I had the privilege of taking my NCCP level 3 theory course under the tutelage of Istvan Balyi, the lead on all LTAD research. He had the framework in place in 1999 (which he showed to our class).
It offers the lay person a scientifically sound approach to programming that supports player development in the simplest fashion possible.
YES there are arguments against some of the research (i.e. the ‘windows of trainability’ etc…) but overall it is sound and provides a ‘best practice’ that everyone can get behind.
Where it is lacking is the implementation...it is optional for clubs to follow (and the supporting documentation for the LTPD is poor). I don’t know why this is.
Sport Canada basically went to each NSO and told them to fall in line with LTAD or they would not receive funding (soccer is not the only sport in Canada following the LTAD model).
So the CSA produced the LTPD (or Wellness to World Cup) documents (which is simply the LTAD content made specific for soccer).
The CSA could simply require adherence to the LTPD model by some arbitrary date in the future or they would not sanction registration (but then they would need to police that creating other logistical issues).
In terms of provincial support, BC Soccer helps a lot but you have to ask for it.
They may not reach out to you to see how everything is going on a regular basis but they are always ready to help if clubs ask for it. There are so many clubs and simply too few staff to provide oversight to every club.
But those clubs who ask for help get it.
Andrew Haines, the grassroots development officer at BC Soccer, came and ran two GK clinics for coaches at my club back in March. Last year he was up for the weekend running a mini- jamboree for our U8 to U11’s.
I was so impressed with the format I implemented it with our U5 and U6 teams to huge success. Andrew (and his regional staff) travel all over the province running these types of clinics to help support TD’s, clubs and coaches but not enough members are aware of this or take advantage of it.
I recently read a story about a club in Alberta who totally revamped their player development structure to align with LTPD. They did it without any technical leadership and present a model that I am interested in exploring here in Kamloops. It is a great story and can be found HERE
Fantasy moment: You are in charge of overseeing player development throughout the country and money is no object – what is the one thing you would do/change to improve the system in place now?
Revamp the initiation years to soccer.
We do not have enough kids who grow up loving this game and that ultimately affects the availability of hard working, committed and talented kids who feed our elite programs. We need to help kids fall in love with the game at an earlier age so they are internally motivated to improve on their own.
Our 5 pro teams are helping with that but our parent volunteer coaches are, for the most part, largely unprepared to run a practice that is fun, exciting, challenging and engaging for our young kids. When Mom and Dad are sampling sports for their kids and ask the kid which sport they want to choose we need them screaming for soccer.
Those initiation years (U5 to U8) would be led by professionally trained staff coaches - one coach working with 16 to 20 kids and supported by 3 or 4 volunteer community or parent coaches.
The staff coaches provide the technical and player management experience that so many volunteer coaches lack (because it only really comes with experience) and this allows the volunteer coaches to be mentored on good coaching practice for several years before they lead the charge on their own.
Training at those age groups would be much more organic than I currently see with a lot of the material on coaching young kids.
There is too much emphasis on ‘changing it up every 5 minutes because the kids lack focus” rather than encouraging coaches to find the activities that keep the kids focussed for long durations of time. You give a kid some finger paint and access to a wall in your house and they can be focused for hours.
Training and competitive play would get progressively more challenging as each player advances - and a good coach can manage that process for each individual as opposed to creating generic sessions for the entire group.
Competitive games would not be introduced until after U8. Kids would still play the game only it would be a part of the training routine as opposed to having a separate day dedicated the game itself. There is such a strong emphasis on the ‘team’ and “us vs them” that I find detrimental to the pure joy of playing and participating which is all any kid really wants.
Not enough TD’s, professional coaches or parents have experience with these youngest ages (it is even apparent in a lot of the training curriculum that is promoted to coaches in those age groups).
These initiation years are where we can have the greatest impact on our future development. Well trained professionals who allow our youngest players and their future coaches the absolute best start in the game possible.