The Blame Game Isn’t Working Anymore

It’s been almost 10 years since the greatest paradigm shift in youth sports was first introduced in Canada – Long Term Player Development (LTPD) also referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). Aimed at building better athletes through greater emphasis on technical proficiency and a reduced emphasis on competitive results in the pre-teen development stages, LTPD was a major shift in the way society thought and was always going to be hotly debated.

Few argued that change in the way we developed and retained athletes in our youth sporting systems needed change. With the exception of a handful of sports, Canada has long been considered a poor to mediocre sporting nation and seldom viewed as a competitive threat, especially in the team sport of soccer. The reasons for this may well be infinite but the one that many touting LTPD preached routinely in Canada’s soccer circles was the suggestion that some studies show as many as 70% of youth stop playing organized sports around the age of 13. While recognizing there are many reasons for this, not the least of which included increased school and life responsibilities and changing interests, a lack of fun and skill development was often cited as large contributors for the participation drop off.

Armed with these studies and ‘facts,’ LTPD was generally sold to the youth soccer community at the expense of volunteer coaches. The rhetoric labelled many as unqualified, “win at all costs” coaches and singled them out as a primary cause for lack of player development and loss of interest in youth soccer across Canada. This of course isn’t without merit. Indeed the majority of coaches were in fact unqualified volunteer parents by virtue that despite it’s huge registration numbers, soccer in Canada was and still is considered a summer recreational activity. It is however unfortunate that it took the demonizing of these people for the administrators and power brokers of the game to actually focus attention on coach education and make a serious effort to help these volunteers receive the proper education and qualifications needed to better serve the youth to which they have dedicated their personal time. With coach education a significant part of the LTPD paradigm, we are seeing a record number of coaches be given much better tools to serve their youth than those my coaches had when I came through the youth soccer system some 30 years ago.

Having been fully implemented across the majority of Canada for the better part of 5 years now, LTPD, despite the grumblings of a minority that will never fully cease, is generally accepted as the way forward for soccer in Canada. The LTPD paradigm leaves plenty of room for interpretation and variation between clubs, associations and leagues while enforcing consistency in it’s core values across the nation. We are starting to get our first glimpses at the youth being produced through this system with varying degrees of success across the country. For those clubs where LTDP implementation has gone well it’s business as usual.  But where perhaps it hasn’t gone as well, there are signs appearing of a situation analogous to what we see in business and politics routinely. The implementation or sale of a new paradigm is often framed or supported by a couple of key central arguments to keep people focused and remind them of its purpose. However when an argument becomes irrelevant or is no longer effectively focusing an audience, it must be refreshed in order to breath new life into the paradigm it supports.

In a minority of soccer circles there are signs that the demonizing of parents is replacing that which coaches use to be subjected. After all, with coach education and the installation of provincially or nationally certified club head coaches a major plank of LTPD, it would hardly lend credence to the paradigm to continue exclusively faulting unqualified coaching for a lack of or perceived lack of player development. In essence that would be an admission of failure of the model and that is never going to happen this early into its lifecycle.

Unfortunately, there are some clubs and coaches that fault parents for a perceived lack of development in their children or for negativity within the club atmosphere. Citing examples of coaching from the sidelines, after practice / game criticism of players, clique’s complaining about coaches and other players, etc. Sound like you? Why not, most parents, myself included, are guilty of one or more of these actions at some point in their children’s sporting development. But to suggest these actions even in moderation as a cause for slow or nonexistent development or to suggest the opinions of a few can adversely affect an entire club of several hundred, many of whom you will never interact with? One needs to give their head a shake. I suspect or at least hope these coaches and clubs are referring to extreme examples like those featured in the documentary “Trophy Kid.”

Trophy Kid follows four extreme examples of parents that place an abnormal amount of pressure on their children to develop in their chosen sport that it affects the athletes negatively in their player development and/or personal welfare and happiness. Sadly these people do exist and they most certainly have the ability to affect their own children’s development and growth; however, they represent such an extraordinary minority that to even suggest there are enough of these parents to hinder an entire team, club program or sport is utterly asinine. It’s unfortunate because the documentary attempts to shed light on a valid issue in youth sports but it chooses such extreme examples that it comes off contrived and insulting to the point it actually does a disservice to the issue.  Parents who think they might be on the cusp of being problematic to their children, team or club will view this and think their behavior is angelic by comparison.

So previously poor coaching was to blame, we took measures to correct that and problems still exist. Now it is poor parenting that is the problem, so some are putting a great deal of time and energy into parent education. What happens when that is no longer the pressing issue and we are still seeing problems? What then? Who do we blame next? The coaches again? The player’s commitment? The clubs, associations, leagues governance?

 

When does the blame game stop and everyone from the top down involved in soccer start being accountable for their own actions?

 

When does the player admit they haven’t put their best effort forth? When does the parent admit that maybe they don’t know what’s best and they ought to just enjoy watching their child play? When does the coach or Technical Director admit development isn’t a one size fits all solution and that maybe they can’t be all things to all people? When does the club administration work with its membership and admit that they can do things better? When does the league, provincial or national association implement tough standards and hold members to account?

Having been entrenched in discussions with people from various soccer circles across Canada and around the world since the inception of LTPD to its present form, I can say that great progress has been made but I now humbly ask all to stop looking for the next scapegoat and start looking in the mirror! We have had issues with player development and retention in youth soccer in Canada and despite a much needed and well intentioned paradigm shift, until we ALL stop playing the blame game and finally accept accountability for our own decisions those problems aren’t going away anytime soon.

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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.

Can Futsal Save Soccer in Canada

Everyone knows the Canadian soccer system is broke. It’s no longer a question of how or why rather a question of what can we do to fix it? Truth is, there are hundreds of things that need to change and decades of commitment to that change before Canada can ever hope of being considered a soccer playing/loving nation as the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) would like. We need look no further than to our good neighbours to the south – the USA. Once in the same boat as Canada, they are now at least two decades ahead of us and although not yet considered a world soccer force they are certainly now the team to beat in CONCACAF and enjoy regular FIFA World Cup qualification. Their award of the 1994 FIFA World Cup sparked a revolution in US soccer, spurring the establishment of a domestic professional league with a number of D2 and D3 league options, forced a plan to deal with the not for profit vs for profit quandary, and inspired regular lucrative promotional events featuring Europe’s and South America’s biggest brands. All this has helped build an appetite and has sold the game to Americans allowing it to grow in the USA. So is their growth model the example for Canada to follow? No, it seems to be working for them and that’s great but it couldn’t possibly work here. The American soccer boom has its roots in massive commercial and financial investment. With 1/10th the population and significant geographic barriers, Canada simply doesn’t have the financial where with all to adopt an American style growth model. If Canada is to succeed at soccer, as it has in other sports, our growth and development models must be culturally driven and technically sound. When a sporting culture is not present, there must be a catalyst for change, a ground zero building block to move things forward. What if futsal was that catalyst? What if futsal was the building block to create both the cultural and technical changes needed to save soccer in Canada?

Hockey Culture
If you don’t like hockey you’re not Canadian! Just kidding, or am I? That answer literally depends on who you ask. The cultural connection to hockey in Canada is as strong as any nationalities connection with soccer. Canada’s dominance in hockey is no more a coincidence than Germany, Brazil and Spain’s dominance in soccer. Our collective cultural passion for hockey is aided by our international success but is rooted in the accessibility of the game at the most basic grassroots level. The vast majority of Canadians love of hockey does not stem from time playing in structured youth leagues at exorbitant costs of $5,000 – $20,000 per season. The average Canadian relates to hockey from the time they spent playing on Canada’s infinite supply of frozen water with their buddies at a cost even the most financially challenged can afford. And when the lakes, ponds and rivers are melted, we are constantly reminded of our hockey loving culture every time we pass by the endless supply of outdoor rinks and arenas in EVERY urban and rural community across Canada. I’ve been told youth hockey is not without its issues but at least the most basic grassroots need – accessibility – is not one of them.

Why Futsal?
Simple. It’s proven to develop some of the worlds most technically proficient players, the skills learned are completely transferable to the full field game and implementing a nationwide infrastructure program is very much feasible.

Essentially a small sided version of soccer, futsal in its many forms has helped develop many of the worlds greatest players and is an essential part of developmental programs in most of the world’s top footballing (soccer) nations. Played on a small surface, 5v5 (4 plus a goalkeeper), futsal is a very fast paced game. It forces players to think and play the game much quicker than full field soccer; this conditions the mind to play under the most demanding pressures the full field game has to offer. In addition to mental sharpness and technical superiority, futsal is proven to develop creativity, player confidence on the ball and perhaps most importantly a sound transitional game; an area the CSA’s Technical Director, Tony Fonseca, identifies as a key component to playing successful soccer. Unlike the full field and modern versions of indoor soccer, players have nowhere to hide in futsal. They must be involved in the play and are often forced to make decisions and attempt skills repetitiously that they might not be forced to perform in variants of indoor/outdoor soccer. Many recognize some of our greatest deficiencies competing internationally include poor speed of play and effective decision-making skills, futsal forces the development of these key aspects. It’s ironic the single best tool to help reverse our shortcomings is not well promoted in Canada.

Building A National Futsal Infrastructure Framework
Like the endless stream of outdoor hockey rinks and arenas across Canada, we could have futsal courts in every neighbourhood and at a fraction of the cost to build and maintain. This can be achieved through a combination of building some new and converting the countless dilapidated basketball and/or tennis courts in every neighbourhood into refreshed multi-use community facilities. We’ve all passed the empty, local sport specific tennis and basketball courts. Why must they be sport specific? Why can these facilities not be multi-use to accommodate basketball, futsal, tennis, volleyball and many more? They can and many such facilities already exist, just not in Winnipeg and I would venture too few elsewhere in Canada.

Modular futsal/multi-use court installation. Source: http://www.weiku.com/products/12589512/Grid_Court_Indoor_interlocking_sports_flooring.html
Modular futsal/multi-use court installation.

Some of the newer and/or better maintained, existing facilities could be converted for a mere few thousand dollars with simple surface marking upgrades and the installation of anchored futsal goals and basketball net upgrades. If one wanted to upgrade from the typical asphalt surface to a futsal certified, multi-use outdoor surface these can be purchased from a variety of vendors ranging from $10-$20/m^2. If you work out the cost vs area permutations for an official FIFA size futsal court, you can purchase an outdoor grade court for as little as $6,000 – $17,000. That price can be lowered significantly, perhaps even halved if the court is purchased for indoor installation.

Governments and municipalities all over North America seek “healthy living” initiatives. They also tend to own several parcels of land not viable for significant economic development but could prove perfect for the creation of new outdoor multi-use community facilities. With a quick internet search you can find some basic pricing of what a new tennis court installation costs. For all intents and purposes, this would be comparable to the size and expense of a multi-use court installation. The basic rate of a new court ranges from $50,000 – $100,000. Broken down as follows:

  • Clearing/grading the land: $15,000 – $25,000
  • Hard/Clay/Multi-sport surface installation: $25,000 – $75,000
  • Fencing & Lighting: $10,000 – $15,000
Multi-use outdoor court. Source: http://www.gridcourt.com/en/product.aspx?tid=5
Multi-use outdoor court. Source: http://www.gridcourt.com/en/product.aspx?tid=5

Sounds expensive right? Wrong! This is a drop in the bucket compared to what most municipalities budget for recreation. To put things into perspective, let’s compare the expenses of refurbishing and building new futsal/multi-use courts to the price of building a community centre hockey arena. The new Seven Oaks Arena is a $20 Million dollar, double rink arena set to begin operation in Winnipeg’s North End this month. You read that correctly, $20 million dollars for one community centre arena in one neighbourhood of one Canadian city! Let’s see how far that would go towards building a national futsal infrastructure shall we?

New/well maintained existing community courts:

  • Assumptions: upgraded marking and new futsal goals/basketball nets required. No repair/upgrades to current surface.
  • Assumed upgrade cost: $5,000
  • Number of refurbished courts for $20M: 4,000

Dilapidated existing community courts:

    • Assumptions: upgraded markings and new futsal goals/basketball nets required. Current surface requires significant repair or replacement.
    • Assumed upgrade cost: $10,000 – $25,000
    • Number of refurbished courts for $20M: 800 – 2,000

Brand new court construction:

      • Assumptions: built on municipal owned land, no acquisition costs.
      • Assumed build cost: $50,000 – $100,000
      • Number of new multi-use courts for $20M: 200 – 400

Manitoba has a population (2014) of 1.2 million people, 65-70% of whom live in Winnipeg. To serve that population we have approximately 244 outdoor rinks and arenas across the province. Of those, 94 are arenas with 28 of those arenas in Winnipeg. Astonishingly, the budget to build just one arena, the new Seven Oaks Arena, could more than cover the total costs of building a futsal infrastructure capable of supporting the entire population of Manitoba! Granted not all arenas are as lavish as the new Seven Oaks Arena but todays replacement cost of a modern single rink, hockey arena ranges between $3 – 10 Million dollars! The International Ice Hockey Federation provides a guide for building basic hockey rink arenas and value their cost  at 2.5 million euros or 3.4 million dollars Canadian. Ignoring the fact there are a number of multi-rink arenas in Manitoba already thus greatly increasing their value, our 94 arenas in this province have a combined value of $282,000,000 – $1 Billion! This could build 2,800 – 10,000 brand new multi-use courts or refurbish as many as 56,400 – 200,000 existing courts depending on current condition. Astonishingly, the value of Manitoba’s arenas alone could potentially finance an entire nationwide futsal infrastructure program!

Nickel and dime the futsal refurbishment and new construction cost estimates if you wish, inflate them by a ridiculous 100% even. The fact indisputably remains that the cost to implement a national futsal infrastructure program pales in comparison to what we already spend on hockey, but my oh my look how that investment has paid off.

Leading the Charge for Change
Some argue that we don’t produce enough talented players and the corrective action is to introduce clear player pathways and universal training methods. Few disagree these are necessary but it’s kind of like putting the horse before the cart. These measures don’t exactly grow and promote the game rather they improve the processes in place for current and future participants. No matter how clear the developmental path or how good the developmental methods, the size and quality of a player pool is culturally dependent.

As the official governing bodies of soccer across Canada, the CSA and its Provincial Member Associations are responsible for the promotion and growth of soccer in Canada. In order to achieve this, they need to establish a cultural connection to the game and make it freely accessible. They should be leading a charge to partner with federal, provincial and municipal governments as well as reaching out to other sporting agencies with similar objectives like Basketball Canada and/or Tennis Canada to pool resources and fund a national futsal/multi-use court infrastructure.

Closing
Cultural identification lends itself to sporting success, there is much proof of this in the world of sport. Reducing access constraints at the grassroots level is crucial to building a cultural identification with a sport. A national futsal infrastructure is economically feasible and capable of building the cultural and technical foundations of the developmental model necessary to grow the game of soccer in Canada. Tasked with the promotion and growth of soccer, our national and provincial governing bodies need to be the primary advocate for developing such an infrastructure framework while partnering with government and sporting bodies with similar vested interests to secure the funding necessary. Financial investment, player pathways and development models are all great and necessary initiatives in building a national sporting program but passion and cultural identification are required for building a successful program.

 

Banner image source: Nick’s World Cup Brazil 2014