What you need to know:
- The young coach, who hung his boots three years ago after a successful sojourn in US, had seen a gap in how the careers of Kenyan football players and Africans in general can be shaped to succeed abroad
- Since the government's ban on sports activities, TTA like most companies has taken the online route, pushing its application, recruitment and training programs online
- Kimathi's eight year-stay in the US saw him play at different levels in the academy system including National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 level
When 26-year-old Kimathi Kaumbutho fondly known as "Coach Kim" founded True Talents of Africa (TTA) Academy last year, conducting training and other academy-related activities online was the last thing on his mind.
But like everyone else he had no choice but to adapt when the coronavirus struck in March. The young coach, who hung his boots three years ago after a successful sojourn in US, had seen a gap in how the careers of Kenyan football players and Africans in general can be shaped to succeed abroad.
According to Kimathi, the academy’s main goal is to discover, mentor and grow football talents by granting the youth access to different kinds of opportunities through scholarships abroad.
"Our vision as TTA is to build a self-sustaining, academically integrated football organisation where students can truly develop, grow and make a life from football and that is why we have focused a lot on young players still in high school or fresh from high school who are still hungry and can easily be guided without too many distractions.
"We say make a life because unfortunately not every player will play at the professional level, but we can give them access to academic scholarship opportunities through their talents that will guide them in maneuvering the job market. Football can open many doors for young people, and our job is to guide them in knowing which doors to knock on," Coach Kim told Nation Sport.
Before the pandemic, TTA which occasionally operates from Nova Pioneer Boys Secondary School and Dawamu Leadership Academy in Nairobi, recruited their players via physical scouting through the school coaches. Those who made the cut were later assessed by the rest of the coaches from the academy and invited to join the elite camps, immediately starting their one-on-one training under Coach Kim.
However, since the government's ban on sports activities, TTA like most companies has taken the online route, pushing its application, recruitment and training programs online inclusive of masterclass sessions hosted and conducted by Coach Kim and the rest of his team.
"I fully understand the importance of building a player both physically and mentally. The pandemic pushed us to look at different ways we can better our players even without meeting up for our usual training. The TTA online masterclasses is therefore an initiative that teaches players about what it really takes to play at the highest level and for them to understand that succeeding as a professional requires more than just being talented on the pitch.
"The masterclasses teach the players the mental side of the game, understanding the regulations and identifying other potential opportunities while still pursuing professional football careers," he added.
According to Coach Kim, one of the major challenges he and the rest of his coaching team faces is the difficulty in having some criteria for selection of players. He says that since most of the upcoming players in Kenya don't have videos of previous matches that they featured in, scouting becomes a challenge hence they base their recruiting on monitoring the players once they join them and analyze their histories through the schools they have partnered with, then use that to divide them based on skill level. Their camps are usually held at Railways Training Institute and Lang'ata.
"We want to ensure that the online classes continue even after things have gone back to normal because, we not only want to focus on Kenyan players but also on the rest of the continent and hence the online classes will give us access to our players who are not within the country,” he explained.
The 16 players currently in the academy are offered combined masterclass sessions three times per week but Coach Kim says although they are all learning new things and having more in-depth discussions on how to better themselves, the downside of the online classes is that they don't have any practical ways of teaching football theory because the mental and physical aspects have to go hand in hand to make a successful player.
Since its formation, the academy has had one successful scholarship handover in Eric Mulu. Mulu, who is an alumnus of Upper Hill High School, earned a full scholarship under TTA'S partner academy in Spain, FC Malaga City.
TTA have also partnered with Sports Recruiting organisations in USA and UK which offer fully paid scholarships and FA Euro Academy also in the United States which is a residential football Academy. TTA's outstanding players go through all these academies to expose them to higher paying opportunities and partnerships.
He maintains that what sets TTA apart from other academies is that they offer genuine opportunities to play internationally and access to students throughout the year giving them a chance to grow together. Their focus is not only on football but the holistic education on how to succeed as the next generation of players.
Being a football guru himself, Coach Kim fully understands the importance of starting professional football training at a young age, having left the country at age 15 to join IMG Academy in Florida, USA.
"What really pushed me in my early years was the fact that my parents were often not around and so I ended up doing many irrational things in pursuit of my football career like leaving home at 15 and travelling to a strange country.
"Looking back, I did this because I wanted to prove to other people including my parents that I could make something out of football and to prove to myself that I am worthy and deserve everything that comes to me. If I played just for fun, I don't think I would have achieved what I have today," he said.
A two-week family trip to a football camp in the United States in 2009 opened the gates for the then 15-year-old who impressed the coaches at the time and he was offered an opportunity to join their full-time residential program.
"It cost my family and arm and a leg to keep me in that academy, but I think they knew how much it meant to me. The scholarships I earned later, hopefully, were my way of paying them back," he recalled.
Kimathi's eight year-stay in the US saw him play at different levels in the academy system including National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 level. He also played for University of Rio Grande in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) level where his team won the national Championship back in 2015.
He later played in the Under 23 PDL Division three league – which is a semi-professional league that gave him opportunities with a few professional teams including Sporting Kansas City and Swope Park Rangers. He also featured in Oral Roberts University (NCAA) championship in 2012 and 2013.
"When I left the US, I was going to attend preseason trials with a Finnish first division team called FC Lathi but the deal fell through last minute. Of course, I could have kept on playing but at that point, I had found the affirmation I was looking for through football. Knowing that I could play at that level, gave me some sort of joy and satisfaction that I still can't explain and once I had that assurance of my worth, it gave me peace even after losing the opportunity," he recalled.
During his short visits back to Kenya in 2011 when he was 17 years old, Coach Kim who looks up to Thierry Henry and Paul Pogba as his role models, trained with Mathare United and KCB.
The TTA Academy founder says retiring at an early age was one of the best decisions he has ever made because he now understands his calling of guiding the youth and mentoring them to live up to their full potential regardless of where they come from.