TORONTO – Greg Vanney is a teacher by nature.
An MLS defender of some repute during his career, Vanney has successfully made the transition from player to coach, in part, because he is such a good teacher. He imparts both general wisdom and tactical information, and has helped several members of Toronto FC develop into better players during his time in charge.
And yet, he’s taken a hands-off approach in teaching two players, in particular.
Vanney’s 10-year-old twin sons, Mason (a defender and midfielder) and Dylan (a forward), are members of the TFC Academy, and currently play for the under-12 team. They’ve come up through Toronto’s youth system rather quickly, having played for the under-11 team last year, and the under-10 team the year before that.
Vaney’s third son, seven-year-old Christian, has been with TFC Juniors, a special training program designed to identify the best prospects for the entry into the TFC Academy. Vanney’s oldest child, daughter Kaia, doesn’t play soccer, in case you were wondering.
Sportsnet recently chatted with Vanney about the twins, whether or not he works with the boys, how he balances being their dad and coach, and if he encouraged them to go into the family business.
SN: How are Dylan and Mason doing with TFC’s under-12 team?
Vanney: Dylan went down with the team earlier this year and played in Dallas [at the GA Cup youth tournament], and scored three goals. He did very well, and I got a lot of texts from people at the tournament who were impressed with how he handled the whole situation. Mason didn’t feature as they opted to go with some older players, so unfortunately he didn’t get the experience. But he knows he’ll get the experience next year. He was there and took it all in, and was itching to play.
But they’re both doing well and enjoying the experience, and being with the team, and each year with the team they’re learning more. At this point, that’s what it’s all about: to continue to learn. There’s still a lot of time ahead of them, but they’re in a really good environment, taking things in and learning more.
You once told me that when you were a kid that you went to your parents and told them that you wanted to be a professional soccer player. Have Mason and Dylan had that conversation with you and your wife?
They both want that. Christian, too. … Dylan and Mason have said, “This is what I want to do.” I think now what they’re starting to learn is what does that actually mean – not just saying it, but to actually live it, and see what becoming a pro looks like. They are starting to understand the work involved, and that’s been good for them. They’re around the training facility all the time, so they see the TFC players and all of that stuff, so they’re getting an understanding of, “OK, what is this really going to take to become a professional player?” They’re seeing first-hand what it takes to get there, beyond just saying, “This is what I want.”
You’ve walked this path that they’ve just started to head down. Have you been encouraging? Discouraging? What have you said to them?
I’ve been encouraging. I’ve given them tips, but I haven’t coached them a lot in terms of being on the field. I’ve only really been around them sporadically during training sessions. For the rest of their lives I know they’re going to hear from me. [laughs] So, I’ve been trying to be their dad as much as possible, and let the learning and teaching happen from within the academy. I’ll provide some feedback along the way. As they continue to progress, I’ll likely give them more feedback or sit down with them and watch videos of their games, and work with them a bit more.
There’s two important parts from my perspective when it comes to them. One, at this early age, they become technically sound as they possibly can. Two, I played the game, so I feel my responsibility is that they see the game through a lens that is a little bit different than the average kid who grows up in a normal North American household where soccer isn’t that important; that they see the game in a very different, clear way. I think that’s where I can really make a difference their development.
How hard is it for you to keep that distance and resist the natural temptation you must have to coach them every day?
It’s become more of a struggle as they get older. A lot of times when kids are younger, you think they have time – just let them play and see what happens. Let them enjoy it and explore the game on their own, and make sure this is what they want to do before you step in and over-analyze things and give them too much information. You don’t want them to be frozen in their heads about everything you say. So, I’ve tried be more encouraging, and encourage them to spend more time with the ball. I’ve tried to guide them in a very general way, like work on their left foot more or things like that, rather than instruct them or give them tactical information to digest. I want to motivate them on a passion level, rather than a competitive level, to go out and work on things on their own.
And what does your wife think about all of them wanting to follow in your footsteps?
She’s all in. She played soccer when she was younger, and was a competitive athlete, so she understands all of this. She’s been encouraging too, telling the boys, “If you’re going to do it, do it to the best of your abilities.” We both want them to just try their hardest and to work hard, and if it doesn’t work out in the end, that’s OK. That’s what we talk about every day with them. Just try your hardest, no matter if it’s soccer, or school, or whatever – work as hard as you can. She shuffles them around, and drives them around a lot to games and training and such.
It would be impossible if [the twins] were not at TFC academy, because I’m gone so much, and there’d be no way for her to get around and live her own life on a consistent basis with four kids.
What are you doing to the poor woman? She probably thought she was done with soccer players, and now you’re raising three more.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s good, though. They’re learning a lot of valuable lessons, both on and off the field, and we’re both happy about that.