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A peek inside Japanese youth coaching - David Clements

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

This piece was written on Thursday 4th February 2022 by David Clements.

With Taiki (Far right) and one of his private academy groups.

Last night Wednesday 3rd February 2022 Reo Hatate put his stamp on the old firm derby, the 24-year-old Japanese midfielder displayed many of his technical skills, hard work and humble attitude on the football field against Rangers in Glasgow. The attributes of Reo are common amongst Japanese football players, if you have ever wondered why some of them bow after coming off the pitch it is a mark of respect and thankfulness to the game. I have been visiting Japan since 2010 as my wife comes from the South Island of Kyushu, the first time I visited I was keen to get to a J-League game (which I did) and take up the football in person as I had only seen it on TV before. At my first game I was immersed in a mix of a family friendly crowds and diehard football fans but what stood out was the technical and fast paced game of football I took in; this was not to be a one off.

I started to contact some academies around the country near places I would be visiting on my trips away. My Japanese family stay in the prefecture of Oita near the border of Miyazaki, our town is quite rural so I would have to travel to find some academies where English was used as my Japanese is not at the level to understand the finer details. The first place I visited was “The British Football academy” in Tokyo, the small session I watched on a Saturday morning was more so for expats children and local Japanese kids. One of the main attractions about their sessions was that sessions were conducted in English by British coaches. Although this academy was relatively small it was obvious that an idea of language learning along with football was attractive to some Japanese parents even if it was not the academy's full intentions.

Fast forward to 2018 and I had got in touch with Taiki, he was a Japanese coach based in Kobe. I met up with Taiki in Osaka for a coffee and to speak football, I brought him session plans and some coach education materials I had picked up over the years in Glasgow. I highlighted to Taiki that from all the football I had witnessed in Japan (Professional, University, academy, and grassroots) technical mastery of the ball was by far a standout.

Taiki spoke all about the academy where he worked, and his own small academy which also had the idea of coaching kids in English in Japan. He invited me along to deliver some sessions for both academies covering all their age groups, this would give me an insight into what ages certain aspects of football were more prevalent than others.

With Taiki and some of the kids from ATS soccer.

Taiki worked for ATS Soccer, which was based in Rokkō island in Kobe, the training complex was also used by Vissel Kobe the J-League club which used it as a setting for their pre-academy phase. On arriving around 4pm I noticed that there were already a lot of kids each day, this is because ATS offer a programme in which kids can come directly from School to the complex. In the reception area were sofas, tables, soft drink fridges and a large TV which showed nothing but football, kids would get together and complete school homework together, helping each other out. It was a very relaxed environment, I particularly liked the idea of football always being shown on the TV, reruns of J-League games, Japan national team games and even the Champions League, I seen this as a 1% extra for motivating kids towards football. There was 3x5 aside pitches outside which the kids could use from arrival until training sessions started, this again giving them extra encouragement to go and play free before a constructed training session would start.

First sessions were always the younger ages, I can remember about 30 kids ran onto the pitch and I had around 12 balls in a 5-aside pitch. ATS did not deliver their sessions in English so for these sessions Taiki translated what I couldn’t get over in my Japanese. After some ball mastery and fun warmups, it was Small sided games to deal with the number of kids and tight spaces, straight away the technical ability was on show. I said to Taiki that anyone of these kids could step into the academy I was in back in Glasgow and would easily stand out in terms of technical ability. I had the same problem working with older groups in terms of space and numbers within the 5-aside pitch, this time even more so as this was with kids 14-17 years old. These kids were all technically talented also and came with a determination to do well, with the numbers I managed to get into some 4 vs 4 in waves of attack, this was when I noticed something different about the 13/14/15-year-olds to those I have coached in the UK. There was little to no sense of tactical cohesion, it seemed that once the attacking player got the ball it became a 1vs1 as their teammates made no moves to create space or get in behind. What made it worse was that the nearest defender just rushed out without a thought about where his teammates were, this was the same with most of the players who took part across the sessions. Through a bit of patience and translation we did manage to get defending and attacking as a unit working but I thought that kids that talented would have been used to working on such basic plays.

Forthem inc field, home of ATS Soccer on Rokkō Island, Kobe.

It seems to me (and this is only from my experiences) that the tactical side of the game might be introduced a little bit too late in Japan, I watched sessions from Japanese coaches who would scream at kids 16/17 in technical passing drills until it was done correctly.

Repetition is big in Japanese schools when it comes to kids learning Kanji characters (one of the 3 Japanese alphabets) and it seems that same learning technique was also prevalent in football academies across the country. The repetition and mastery of the ball is also highlighted by Tom Byres, an American based coach in Japan, Tom has overseen some of Japan's top footballing talents and he comes with the message of “Football starts at home”. His book (find a link at the bottom of this page) gives the message of starting ball mastery from a young age at home through the influence of parents.

In summary I think that the idea of having a programme where parents can pay a monthly fee which allows their kids to go directly from school to the footballing complex is a great idea. These kids are not in professional academies, but this programme allows them to be around a footballing environment where they are free to practice outside of constructed training sessions. Perhaps what makes it work better is that Japanese kids have grown up in a culture where respect is so important and therefore behavioural problems are almost non-existent, thus staff do not need to regulate as much. From what I have learned there aren’t a lot of coaching opportunities in Japan unless you can speak the language, I had the idea (and I am still open to it) of starting a similar academy to that of The British Football academy as I believe the addition of English learning is a great selling point. The Japanese Football Association recently ran their D Licence course for coaches with the help of a translator to English, this allowed foreign coaches to get on the JFA coaching pathway although courses beyond this are strictly in Japanese and can be quite intense in theory learning.

Kids playing at the complex.

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