Soccer coach embraces challenge
By Morris Dalla Costa, Free Press Sports Columnist
There's nothing more challenging than creating something from nothing. Drew Ferguson loves challenges and he loves the idea of creating something from scratch.
His newest assignment definitely fits those requirements.
Ferguson, a former member of Canada's national soccer team in the mid-1980s, is putting together Canada's first cerebral palsy national soccer team. He's holding a tryout/training/discovery camp in London at Soccerworld. His first session was yesterday and there will be two more sessions today and another at East Elgin secondary school tomorrow.
How new is the venture?
So new that there were 13 invited athletes to the camp, some from as far away as Vancouver and Nova Scotia. Soccer isn't even their specialty. They are simply fine athletes, most from track and field, who Ferguson hopes to turn into soccer players. There was an initial introductory camp in Kelowna last summer.
"This is the first evaluation camp," said Doug Lusk, assistant coach of the national team who has coached the East Elgin boys' soccer team for 10 years. "The camp is in London because of the indoor facilities here.
"This is a chance of a lifetime for me to get involved from the ground level. I've never been in a program where it started with nothing and watch it grow over the next four or five years. The ultimate goal is to compete at the Paralympics. That's the goal of these athletes."
The process began in 2001 when the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association allocated a small amount of seed money to find out if there was interest in forming a national soccer team. The response was heartening. They contacted Ferguson to coach.
Last year, the Canadian Soccer Association joined the venture, which assured the team of official recognition and more money.
While the 13 players participating in this event may be good athletes, they have no soccer experience. Ferguson's job is to evaluate their talent as well as promote the sport. When he was first asked to coach he wasn't sure he wanted to do it.
Those unfamiliar with competitions involving athletes with disabilities minimize their abilities. The reality is they are excellent athletes. Ferguson and Lusk ran the players through a variety of drills and while it was obvious they were inexperienced in the game and had a steep learning curve, it was just as obvious they were learning quickly.
"I looked at some tapes and thought 'This is awesome. It's great,' " said Ferguson, who runs soccer academies and does coaching clinics in British Columbia. "I didn't know much about it, but when I see athletes running 100 metres in 11 seconds, you can work with that.
"I can coach them as soccer players. I'm going to demand things of them I demand of professional athletes. If they can't do it then I have to figure out a way for them to do it. If they can't shoot the ball properly, we'll have to find a way they can do it."
Many other nations in the world have strong cerebral palsy national teams. Players are classified by the severity of their disability. The game is played seven-a-side on a smaller-sized pitch with smaller and shorter goals. Some rules are different from the normal game of soccer.
Canada participates in other cerebral palsy sports, specifically boccia, bowls, cycling, powerlifting and athletics. The Canadian boccia championship are in London this year.
"In the next few months, I'll probably be travelling to other provinces, making appearances," Ferguson said. "I hope next time to have 200 here trying out. Every athlete is a high-quality athlete. They may walk with a limp, but when running there's no limp there.
"These athletes are more keen and determined than able-bodied. Some of these guys train four times a week on their own. I know athletes you tell to train four times a week and they'll say 'I'll get right on it' but they never get on it."
It will be a lot of work, effort and time to prepare a national team to compete against the rest of the world. But it's just that challenge that attracted Ferguson.
"I don't know if I would have done it if I wasn't starting from the ground floor," Ferguson said. "That makes it exciting. Starting from the ground floor potentially to being at the Olympics. Now that's very exciting."