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.

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GIS and Soccer, an Unlikely Comparison

I’ve put a lot of thought into the theme of my inaugural blog. In my previous introductory post I noted that I expect to write a lot about my profession – Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and even more about my passion – Soccer. So while thinking about which topic ought to kick start my blog, I never dreamt that both could occupy the same subject. Why would I or anyone else for that matter, they seem so radically different. One is a high intensity, physically demanding sport, the other, a professional office job predominantly spent in front of a computer or some mobile device. The reality is both interests have a vast, multifaceted base but strip the layers to their very core and you will see they both share two fundamental principles – Time and Space.

The general definition of a geographic information system (GIS) is “a computer system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data.” The definition tells us all we need to know. It tells us that a GIS involves components like computer hardware, software and people. It also tells us a number of processes are involved such as capturing, storing, manipulating, analyzing and managing data. Lastly, there is an output, the presentation of the data in some format be it a map, chart or table to be used to better understand relationships and make decisions. The components, processes and outputs in a GIS can vary but nothing has a greater functional effect on the output’s raison d’être then the data itself. Spatial data are representations of real world phenomena. Take for example maps, they are a snapshot of the earth’s surface and their data (e.g. points, lines and areas) represent real world features that occupy space at a given point in time. Assume you have two maps of the same town, one before and one after five years of rapid growth. Regardless if the components and processes change or remain the same, the new map looks very different from the original. Not because a different technician created it on a new computer with new software, or because a different colour scheme was chosen or the map layout has been updated; the new map is fundamentally different because the time and space of its representation is different.

The “Beautiful Game” can be tremendously complicated if you let it. Like a GIS, it too is a system of components, processes and outputs. Too often we get bogged down in over analysis of the human components and the intricacies of the tactical processes behind team formations and styles of play. True, after 90+ minutes of play a combination of the two lead to an output – the match result. So how then does Time and Space transform the output of a soccer match?

Last fall I enjoyed a great discussion over coffee with the Technical Director of my son’s soccer club. Of the many things we discussed, player development was the hot topic. Inevitably the Canadian men’s national team and their abysmal world ranking came up as a talking point for our overall quality as a soccer nation. He told me the margin of technical skill and tactical prowess between Canada and other ‘soccer nations’ was much smaller than many believed. He explained at the national team level, our coaches are proficient, our men and women are physically fit, they can pass, shoot and dribble as well as any but we are lacking in our speed of play – specifically, our mental speed of play or decision making. Dribble here, pass there, drop into this supporting space, cut off that passing lane, break that line with a run into space; knowing how to do these things isn’t our weakness, inability to think several seconds ahead of the play and do these before our opponents makes the difference. At first, the gap in the speed of decision making is small, maybe fractions of a second between Canadian kids and their European and South American counterparts. But, as they age the gap widens, potentially to as much as several seconds at the senior level. Over a 90+ minute match, seconds become minutes of mental lapses and lost opportunities. In an otherwise technically, tactically and numerically balanced match, those minutes can open up a great deal of time and space giving your opponent the advantage needed to tip the balance and alter the result. Boil the game of soccer down to its simplest form and the winner will always be the team that exploits and commands time and space most advantageously.

While studying Geomorphology at university one of the themes that resonated with me was the ubiquity of time and space and their effects on everything in the natural world. Far from an elite soccer player and fuelled by my desire to understand these relationships, its not surprising I was led into the world of GIS, a profession built on the study of temporal and spatial relationships within and between phenomena. As a result, I subconsciously approach everything in life with a priority to understand the unique situational relationships with time and space for guidance. This of course extended to my coaching youth soccer. Forgive me for using the beaten to death cliche “Work smarter not harder.” Of course neither aspect ought to be ignored but if this is your mantra, it’s a pretty important part of the formula for developmental and team success. Every soccer fan in the world has watched a team be utterly dominated from start to finish only to pull off a divine upset. But that match winning one goal difference wasn’t divine intervention, it was the product of one or more players thinking half a second ahead of their marks and commanding the space resulting from their opponents mental lapses to create an opportunity that they seized. Smarter not harder.

I make maps everyday at work and I could certainly map a path that leads my players to much match success but that isn’t my job! My job is to help provide them with the map making tools they need to map their own time and space to success.