Nights Like This Are Why I Love To Coach

Tonight was the best night I’ve had as a coach in years! I want to thank my U5/6’s for helping remind me why I love to coach.

Lately I’ve been caught up in my frustration with the politics and systemic issues plaguing youth soccer in Canada. I’ve been coaching my eldest son for 9 years now beginning when he started playing Timbits mini soccer around 3 years of age. As he’s progressed through the years from mini soccer into the competitive stream of soccer things have changed, not just for him as a player but for myself as a coach and a parent. Once you cross that threshold from mini soccer to competitive youth soccer around U9, the “games” begin and it’s not long before all know where they stand in the court of public opinion. Players begin to identify their place on the club totem pole, coaches and technical staff are routinely added, dropped or re-assigned on the basis of their perceived motives while parents are identified as either disruptive or brown nosers. Yes, the issues with youth sport in general are many, the frustrations are very real and together can cloud the memories of why players, coaches and parents alike got involved in the first place. I’ve been living under the veil of this cloud intermittently for sometime now.

However, also coaching my 5 year old, I’m fortunate enough get a break from it all twice a week. My U5/6’s whisk me away to a time and place where soccer is fun again, where all motives are innocent and genuine! Don’t get me wrong, it can be as big a challenge as any trying to get ten 5 and 6 year olds on the same page and keep them there for an hour all by yourself. Some nights, like tonight, are easier than others; nights when a vibe runs through the team and all the kids are excited to be there, nights they’re having the time of their lives, fully engaged in the exercises and the game, nights when everything outside of the pitch stands still and all that matters is what’s happening right now on the field. Nights like this are why I love to coach!

Devoid of the politics and games, the whispers and bias, for one hour twice a week I can help these kids fall in love with soccer and unbeknownst to them, they too help me fall in love with soccer… again. It’s been an absolute pleasure watching all of the kids I’ve coached over the years grow and develop a love for the game.

Paternal pride alert, it’s been particularly gratifying watching my youngest develop. Now in his third year of mini soccer I’m seeing the love he holds for the game shine through. Everyone expects the coach’s kid to be one of the best players but that doesn’t always hold true. In his first season, my youngest was the very definition of a “grass picker.” Spending 90% of his field time plopped down by a corner flag or rolling around signing, he didn’t fit the stereotypical view of the coach’s kid. In his second season, he started much the same way he ended his first and I thought to myself, “perhaps soccer isn’t his game.” Not that I would mind if it wasn’t but I was very happy indeed when he proved me wrong, as though a switch had been flicked, and played a very strong second half of the season. Now in his third season, from the very first game he’s been a little terror, in all the good ways. Strong on and off the ball, compassionate towards friend and foe and a thirst to always want to play more. It is perhaps the sweetest sound any parent coach will hear, coming home everyday to “Daddy, is it my soccer today?”

I’d like to think I’ve learned a lot from my first experience coaching my eldest through mini soccer that today my youngest is benefiting from a more relaxed introduction, allowing him to discover and grow into the game at his own pace. I’d like to think the coach education I’ve received over the years since have helped me grow as a coach. Most importantly, I’d like to think that a better soccer experience awaits us all by the time my youngest reaches the next stage. In the meantime, I’ll grin and bear this roller-coaster ride, thankful that the lows of youth soccer are outweighed by its many wonderful experiences.

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Canadian Youth Soccer Participation: Boom or Bust?

I was sitting at my work station this morning thinking about the session I was planning to roll out tonight with my U12 boys rec team in preparation for the season kick off next week when I got “the email.” It was from a third parent in as many weeks notifying me that they were pulling their child from soccer to focus on various other “priorities.” Then I started to wonder if this was a unilateral decision or if the child was given any say in the matter? Does this parent offer their child any other opportunities for physical activity or promote healthy living in other ways? Without knowing all the facts, I felt sorry for the child, sorry he would miss out on the opportunity to be active, sorry he would miss out on the opportunity to meet new friends, sorry he would miss out on the opportunity to fall in love with the Beautiful Game!

My original roster of 13 players was now down to just 10 and we haven’t even played a single game yet. Being U12 and playing an 8v8 format that leaves me with a very lean roster even with perfect attendance and health. This got me thinking about the broader issue beyond just my team. Being a GIS Specialist, this of course meant I was thinking spatially. Using 2011 StatsCan census data, I examined the population by age within each soccer district in Winnipeg. Using this data I looked at 2015 outdoor soccer participation rates among U12 boys within my own district and that of a neighbouring district, the results are nothing short of disturbing!

SCSA U12 Pop
Figure 1: Youth soccer participation in my local soccer district.
FCNW U12 Pop
Figure 2: Youth soccer participation in a neighbouring soccer district.
SCSA-FCNW U12 Pop
Figure 3: Youth soccer participation combined in my local soccer district as well as a neighbouring district.

Figure 1 illustrates the geographical reach of my soccer district and includes counts for total 12 year old population and the approximate U12 boys registration count to calculate their participation rate. Figure 2 and Figure 3 shows the same information for a neighbouring district and the two districts combined respectively. In all cases the total 12 year old population was halved on the assumption that the gender ratio was approximately 50/50. A fair assumption as this fits the general population models for Manitoba and Canada. To confirm, +/- 5% differences in the gender ratio were tested and resulted in a +/- 0.7% difference in the participation rates, a statistically insignificant difference.

I chose this temporal period and these geographies simply because I had the data readily available. Historically these two districts in Winnipeg have faced either socio-economic and/or organizational challenges that have hampered strong growth of their player bases thus they may not be entirely representative of Winnipeg as a whole. It would be interesting to complete this review for all 5 Winnipeg soccer districts for each gender and at each age group from U4 – U18 during both the summer and winter seasons.

So there you have it, a rather depressing 6.6% participation rate this summer among Winnipeg’s 12 year old boys in what is supposedly Canada’s fastest growing and most widely played game. I fully realize the dangers and limitations of extrapolating these temporal and spatial based results beyond Winnipeg and across Canada but it’s a start and an eye opener at that. As fortune would have it, I stumbled upon the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) 2011 Annual Report titled, Momentum: A Game Changer. In it, the CSA claim that nationally 44% of Canada’s youth participate in soccer. My initial thought was what the heck is wrong with Winnipeg, considered by many a passionate soccer market. After regaining my wits, I called shenanigans on the CSA claim. To my luck they published stats on registered players by province and nationally. Again using publicly available 2011 census data from StatsCan and the CSA’s own published 2011 registration counts, I was able to calculate the youth soccer participation rates (combines males and females) for every province and Canada. The disturbing results are summarized below in Table 1.

Canadian Youth Soccer Participation Rates 2011

With a national youth participation rate of 12%, this is a far cry from the 44% claimed by the CSA. As you can see the results are poor right across the board, particularly in the prairies and most disappointing in Manitoba. Keep in mind the numbers I present are for registered players. If the 44% claimed by the CSA was to somehow include a miraculous estimate of unregistered players as well, the results are even more disastrous suggesting that as many as 32% of youth would rather forgo participation in the structured youth soccer system. It’s a damning indictment of our system and the national and provincial governing bodies effectiveness to grow, promote and retain youth participation in the game of soccer.

Perhaps I’ve been harsh in suggesting a lack of growth in the game among Canada’s youth. Well as fortune would have it, yet another gem fell into my lap, this time from FIFA. In the July 2007 edition of FIFA Magazine an article titled BIG COUNT: 265 million playing football a 2006 national count of Canada’s registered youth soccer players was published. I calculated the national participation rate in 2006 using this data combined with the StatsCan 2006 census data to arrive at a participation rate of 12.03% shown below in Table 2.

Canadian Youth Soccer Participation Rates 2006

Interestingly there were actually fewer registered players in 2011 then there were in 2006. This however is not surprising as it follows the decreasing youth population trend over the same time period. What is significant is the fact that there is a statistically insignificant decrease in youth soccer participation rates in 2011 from 2006 thus proving my point that no tangible growth has taken place in the game of soccer in Canada over this time period. It won’t be until the 2016 national census before we are able to see if any progress has been made.

So why all these numbers? Well this all began this morning while lamenting the loss of three of my players and the underwhelming registration numbers within my local soccer district and it just snowballed into a greater issue within my city, my province and my country. The CSA and its provincial member associations have been working very hard in recent years to bring about positive change in Canada’s youth soccer landscape. They have introduced arguably the greatest single advancement in Canadian soccer with the introduction of Long Term Player Development (LTPD), they recognize and are prioritizing the need for quality coach education and are working towards a national Club Charter model. These are great and necessary initiatives to improve the experience for our participants but do not address the root problem with soccer in Canada – growth. Canada has no cultural connection to the game of soccer, we don’t get excited about soccer like we do hockey. Until we establish a national pride and make soccer part of our cultural fabric it is forever destined to be a periphery sport in this country.

Being the soccer loving optimist I am, I’m not ready to call Canada’s youth soccer participation a bust but given the data available, my personal experiences as a coach, player and parent in the community, it seems far from a boom.