Thirty, maybe 40, pool fans took in the recent Atlantic Challenge Cup at the Schaumburg Convention Center outside Chicago. Most were family members and close friends of the participants. Others were interested parties from within the billiard industryÖproduct manufacturers and suppliers, and a few top players.
Itís a shame more people didnít attend in person. The event, which pitted a team of top junior players from the United States against top junior players from Europe, was streamed live on the Internet. But to truly appreciate the effort that went into the event and the passion displayed by the players, coaches and fans, you really had to be there.
The ACC, as it is called, is a cooperative initiative of the Billiard Congress of America and the European Pocket Billiard Federation. Both national federations understand the importance of youth development in the game. But the notion of working together to create a single event that could well be the major catalyst in driving youth programs on both continents is sheer brilliance.
The model on which the ACC was founded, of course, was the Mosconi Cup. The thing is, the Mosconi Cup was almost 20 years old before the U.S. and Europe began to look at the event as something bigger than a single tournament. They began to understand the value in leveraging the Mosconi Cup to increase interest from other promoters and enthusiasm among players. Today, promoters are lining up to have their tournaments qualify as Mosconi Cup points events, and players put singular focus on earning enough points to participate in the storied Cup.
On a different scale, the ACC is poised to help both continents drive interest at the juniors level. In two short years, the ACC has already become an aspirational event. In the U.S., junior players from every league system ó American Poolplayers Association, BCA Pool Leagues, Valley National Eightball Association and more ó now have something tangible to shoot for. Sure, medalists at the annual Billiard Education Foundation Junior National 9-Ball Championships qualify for the WPA Junior World Championships, but just physically getting to the worlds is a tall order. The ACC is sexy, team oriented, nationalistic. Itís Team USA. Itís an event that promotes unapologetic cheerleading. What kid wouldnít aspire to wear that jersey and play in that event?
The 2016 ACC saw Team Europe dominate Team USA, 11-3. The final score isnít representative of the talent that Team USA fielded, but it wasnít a total shock, either. What those in attendance (and viewing online) got to witness was the disparity between the way youth programs are developed in Europe and how they are developed in the U.S. Junior programs throughout Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, are far more structured, from formal coaching to tournament play. In some cases, national federations even offer stipends to help develop talent.
In the U.S., the juniors predominantly play on bar tables, and coaching is hardly a full-time job. The better players occasionally participate in local and regional adult tournaments on 9-foot tables, but that is the exception, not the rule.
And make no mistake, the difference was noticeable at the Atlantic Challenge Cup. America has some terrific talent. But the system that could develop that potential into players who can compete on an international level simply isnít in place yet.
The American kids need coaching in a structured environment. At the ACC, Team USA enjoyed the luxury of having four BCA Hall of Famers in their corner ó Jeanette Lee, Johnny Archer, Allison Fisher and Nick Varner. The players were there to help Team USA captain Earl Munson get his players ready for competition. Not surprisingly, the passion and energy was there, but the structure was not. You canít overwhelm teenage kids with information, instruction and pep talks right before they are asked to perform under massive pressure. On the eve of the tournament, one coach was trying to teach the kids a diamond system. I could see the kidsí heads about to explode. It was coaching overkill.
Across the hall, Team Europe captain Tomas Brikmanis sat in a chair and watched his players practice, smiling and not saying a word. ďMy job is easy,Ē he said. ďThese kids already know how to play. Iím not here to instruct. Iím here to decide strategy and keep them together.Ē
This is how coaching is done properly.
Forget the score. What the 2016 ACC did was identify to the U.S. pool community what it needs to do to compete, and what a great opportunity we have to grow tomorrowís players today.
Iíve said before, I would love to see the BCA at least partially fund an official Team USA program ó a program that helps develop both Junior Team USA and pro Team USA. Forget putting money behind a single pro tournament. If the BCA is going to put money towards the ďplayĒ side of the game (as they like to call it), put the money where it will pay dividends. Letís learn from the structure used in Europe. Letís develop a legitimate coaching program.
The ACC is one of the best tools pool has developed in years. Letís not miss the opportunity it affords us.