Jason deVos knows his task won’t be easy.
Named Canada Soccer’s director of development in August, the former Canadian player is fully aware of the challenges he now faces.
Following Canada’s recent elimination from men’s World Cup qualification, deVos spoke to CBC Sports on his plans for turning around a program that hasn’t been to soccer’s biggest tournament since 1986:
CBC Sports: Why is coach education your No. 1 priority?
DeVos: It’s a vital piece of our development. Everything starts here. Far too often uneducated and untrained coaches will take the easy way. They’ll take a young player who is physically mature for their age — bigger, stronger, faster than their peers — and won’t teach them the skills they need to play the game because they can use their physicality. They do this because it looks like success. We have to change that metric.
In elementary school, we don’t just teach 10-year-olds math with the aim of getting an A at the end of the year. We may want them to get an A but we’re aiming for something greater. Soccer should be the same. The highlight of our kids’ engagement with soccer shouldn’t just come when they’re 10 years old. It has got to be bigger than that. We have got to look long term at what kids need to succeed.
CBC Sports: Why has it taken Canada Soccer this long to embrace this philosophy?
DeVos: Change isn’t easy, it really isn’t. People don’t like change; they like to do the same things they’ve always done, especially after having some success, like we’ve had with the women’s team. The most dangerous phrase in the world is, ‘that is how we have always done things.’ We have to be willing to challenge our preconceived ideas and notions because the game evolves and our teaching methods must also change.
Far too often, it isn’t the needs of the players that are put at the forefront of decisions, but needs of adults to justify their programs, to win a trophy, to put the outcome ahead of the process and learning needs of the players. We have to change that because it has been demonstrated that what we’re doing isn’t working.
CBC Sports: Why has it been 30 years since Canada last made the World Cup?
DeVos: We all want an easy fix, and yet, when I look back at my three attempts to qualify as a player, we just kept hitting the reset button, hoping that next time things will be different. But [now], with the benefit of a bit of wisdom and perhaps a bit of hindsight, I realize we simply weren’t good enough. So you have to look at why that is. We always had fight. But that will only get you so far. I want us to marry that fight, with great skill, technical ability, awareness, tactical acumen, where our players have the skill set required to play the game at a high level. But also the tactical understanding of how to apply those skill sets and that’s a big challenge.
CBC Sports: Siggi Eyjolfsson, one of the men credited with Iceland’s success at the recent Euro tournament says it comes down to three things: Coaches, facilities and opportunities. Why not copy that blueprint?
DeVos: In many respects, we will. But I think what we have to do is not copy what they did, but the principle of what they did, and it really does fall around coach education. There is no one in the world who can tell you which kid will go on to play international soccer. [Manchester United manager] Jose Mourinho can’t tell you that, [Bayern Munich manager] Carlo Ancelotti can’t tell you that, because there are so many [intangibles] that there is no way to predict.
So why are we [in Canada] selecting players as early as seven years of age? Why are we not giving every player an opportunity? The reason [to go back] is because we feel we have to play for a trophy. We have to play to get an outcome in a game; that is how we measure success.
Yes, eventually we do have to compete, but again, the outcome of the game should never come before the learning needs of young players. And that’s the message we need to get across. Parents don’t understand that. They understand playing for a trophy, playing for a winner. That’s the easy thing for people to fall into, but it’s more difficult to understand that even if they win, they haven’t won anything. If their child can’t apply the lessons from the game to future situations, and part of the problem I think is that we have never done a good job explaining this to parents.
CBC Sports: So what’s your plan to start implementing this?
DeVos: One of the challenges we have is that we have never had an advanced coaching licence for children. Establishing this is my number one priority. It’s a huge challenge because of the scale and size of our country.
CBC Sports: Would you make this licence mandatory for all youth coaches?
DeVos: I would hope that organizations at the forefront of player development in our country will demand that their coaches obtain this qualification because it will allow them to deliver a better program, and to do a better job of teaching children in those age groups.
CBC Sports: What will it take for apathetic attitudes towards Canadian soccer to change?
DeVos: In Canada, heaven forbid we fail to win in hockey; there would be a national summit to identify the problems covered by the media. And while the attachment isn’t as strong in soccer, there is a strong grass roots attachment.
When our women won bronze in 2012, they were the darlings of our Olympic team. They unified the country behind them. While bronze in Brazil wasn’t as big of a surprise, it did the same thing.
If we can get the men into the World Cup — just qualifying will have the same effect. I was 12 when we qualified in 1986 — our one and only appearance in the World Cup. And watching them play in Mexico ignited something in me. I wanted to do that, to represent Canada. And success at the international level will create that same effect for the next generation of Canadian kids. But you have to marry the passion that kids have with some sort of international success, because if you don’t, then it just remains a recreational sport for some people.