Building a program, part II: Exciting opportunity for incoming Junior National Team head coach
Photo credit: USA Football
Many coaches dream of building a football program from the ground up, but very few get the opportunity to do so at the Canadian university level.
Incoming Junior National Team head coach Steve Sumarah is just beginning his time with the program, but he’s one of the rare coaches that had the opportunity to build a Canadian university football program from scratch.
Sumarah’s term with the national team begins at an exciting time in Football Canada’s history as its high performance programs were recently recognized by Sport Canada. This acknowledgement is an important step as it opens doors for federal funding, specifically for national teams – a first for football in Canada. It also comes with directives to continue to develop a national team program.
Canada has met the U.S. in the first three IFAF U19 World Championship gold medal games, capturing gold in 2012 while taking home a pair of silver medals at the inaugural 2009 event as well as in 2014 in Kuwait.
The program is just starting to move from a one-and-done team to a true program that players are a part of for multiple years, just like most teams. The pathway is starting to develop as many national team athletes progress from the Football Canada Cup (under-18 national championship) to the International Bowl and on to the world championship. Much of the infrastructure to support players growth within the program is also being developed.
Entering his fourth season as head coach at Carleton in 2016, the 2018 and 2020 world championships serve as another opportunity for Sumarah to build out an already established program while representing Canada at the highest level.
“I just think the fact that you’ve got to represent your country is one of those second to none opportunities. It’s a big responsibility to have to represent your country and have to make sure that we put the best foot forward to make this a success.”
To get up to speed on the challenge, Sumarah has spoken to a number of current and past coaches involved in the program. He’s also been observing the program at the 2016 International Bowl in Texas and 2016 U19 World Championship in China. He’s learned a great deal and believes getting an early commitment from players is one of the first steps to developing the junior national team.
“I think the biggest thing is getting the commitment early. It’s also having these players not just feel that they’re a one-off on a team, but that they’re part of a program and to be part of a program means that you carry and extra-level of pride.”
Sumarah, a former Canada Cup head coach with Nova Scotia in the late 90’s, would like to continue to keep a core group of players from the Canada Cup together in the national team program where they can grow within the program as they progress from the U18 to the U19 level.
“These guys will get to know each other. They’ll feel as a unit and that’s important.”
To implement his philosophy, Sumarah is focused on not only attracting the top players but also finding those that are a good match to handle the pressure and commitment required to play on the world stage.
“Making sure that we have the best character kids in the program, that’s number one. Number two is making sure we identify who the best people are. Finally, I think it’s just a matter of going forward and creating a program where players all across the country want to become apart of.”
“I want to create the atmosphere so that it’s so ingrained in the football culture in this country that you’d be considered crazy not to be apart of it. That’s my long-term goal.’”
A key area of interest for Sumarah is the junior programs strength and conditioning plan. It’s a logical area of improvement given the focus that’s put in the weight room at the junior and university level as well as professionally.
He’ll look for ways to keep players focused on staying disciplined and understanding the importance of off-season preparation is to helping reach optimal performance when they represent Canada.
“I think you need a very strong strength coach. You need somebody that’s going to stay on top of these guys. Again it goes back to, you need kids that are committed that really want to do this. The ones that really want to do this, they are going to very much follow the path of this.”
“We have tons of football (in Canada). Sometimes the one thing that gets lost is that we have no training. In this program, hopefully, with the tracking that we’re going to be able to do and all those kind of things, that will only help people understand the importance of it.”
Sumarah will be using the Canada Cup in Winnipeg to convey his vision for the national team to the next generation of athletes.
“I’ll be utilizing that time to basically recruit the teams, to talk to people, explain the scenario, how it works and what the expectations I have and what their commitment is. So by the time the International Bowl comes around, now we’re talking and the players are already in.”
Sumarah’s hope is that by starting the conversation ahead of time, once the players are invited into the program, he can focus on how the program and player can grow together.
Early identification and communication is also critical in helping athletes in the program reach their peak performance during international football seasons. National team athletes must be account for competition in late January or early February (International Bowl) as well as again in late June and early July (world championship).
“Normally when you think about it, university programs are just starting to ramp up their training in January after the season. So now (with the national team), once your season ends (in October or November) you’ve got to start right away (training). There’s minimal down time, if you want to have that peak performance in January and I think these guys do.”
Another of Sumarah’s goals is to increase parental involvement as he sees their support as another key piece of the puzzle that is sometimes overlooked.
“I’m a firm believer that if the parents are involved, they are going to support, especially at this age-level. Some of these guys are going to be 18-19 and still kind of finding their way and I think they need the parental support.”
Following the Canada Cup, Canada’s incoming head coach is looking to hit the ground running. His first task will be filling out his coaching staff and then beginning to identify and connect with perspective players.
“I’m hoping, by the August time frame, that we’re locked and loaded and moving forward. I think the biggest thing is just continuing to push the word of football in this country. I think that’s the number one thing that I see that we continue to need. The more things that are out there, the more talk, the better it is.”
This post is also available in: French