We’re NOT #GrowingTheGame but Futsal Can Help

If you’re at all connected in anyway with youth sports you have likely seen or heard the #GrowTheGame or #GrowingTheGame expression… a lot over the past few years. It’s a rallying cry for administrators, coaches and sport enthusiasts alike to raise awareness for a sport and promote exemplary people and/or initiatives within the sport contributing to its growth. In Canadian youth soccer it seems we’re really fond of this hashtag catch phrase but are we living up to our word? Who is responsible for overseeing its progress? And how is progress achievable?

Are We #GrowingTheGame?

In short, No! But we can! Let’s first start by dispelling this crazy notion that we are before examining how we actually can. Two years ago I undertook an impromptu study on youth soccer participation rates in Canada (Kellough, 2015a) using Statistics Canada population census data and registered youth soccer players in Canada from FIFA in 2006 and the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) in 2011. I was able to determine that not only was there no national growth in the game during this five year period, there was in fact a statistically insignificant contraction of growth in the game.

On May 6, 2017 at Canada Soccer’s Annual General Meeting, they released their 2016 Canada Soccer Annual Report titled “Think Globally Act Locally.” Once again they published data on registered youth soccer players in Canada that could be compared against StatsCan 2016 Census data, a continuation on from my previous work. Hoping that the minor contraction in registered youth soccer players and thus participation rates observed between 2006 – 2011 was merely a blip, I was sadly disappointed to see it proven not so. Table 1 shows a breakdown of registered youth soccer players and a participation rate of the total youth population by province as well as nationally.

GrowingTheGame - Table 1

Participation trends revealed follow that shown from the previous study based on 2006 and 2011 data, participation on the East and West coast is among the highest while the prairies are lowest with Manitoba’s the lowest of all provinces by a startling measure. Manitoba’s youth soccer participation rate is in fact so low that Saskatchewan, the second lowest ranking province in the country, has double their normalized participation rate and P.E.I. astoundingly almost 5 times that of Manitoba! The folks in Manitoba and at the CSA ought to have a long, hard look at these numbers and ask some tough questions of themselves. Now if we compare these provincial and national numbers to 2006 and 2011 data the picture is desperately grim.

GrowingTheGame - Table 2

Nunavut will be excluded from the following discussion as this is its first appearance with records kept and thus it has no rate of change to be established at this time. Remarkably, 8 out of 12 provinces and territories show an average decline of 1.25% in participation rates between 2011 – 2016. Only 4 jurisdictions have experienced an increase in participation rates averaging 1.24%  and this value is largely brought up by significant gains in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The result is a national participation rate decline of almost ¾ of a percentage point between 2011 – 2016.

While provincial records for 2006 were unavailable, we see that nationally the participation rate further declines to almost one full percentage point over the period of 2006 – 2016. Table 3 gives us a better picture of what exactly this means.

GrowingTheGame - Table 3

A 0.78% decline in our national participation rates from 2006 – 2016 equates to a loss of 44,512 youth soccer players or a decline of 6.22% in registered youth soccer players from 2006. That’s the equivalent of a small Canadian city, a staggering loss for a single decade! With only four jurisdictions in the whole of Canada showing gains in youth soccer participation and an overall loss of almost 45,000 youth players over the past decade, we most certainly are NOT #GrowingTheGame.

The quandary with this statistically significant decline in youth soccer registrations and participation rates is that it comes during arguably the most progressive decade in Canadian soccer history. So did we get it wrong? Is our chosen path over the past decade the wrong way forward? No. I don’t believe the observed declines are the direct result of any of the policies and initiatives implemented over the past decade rather, they are more likely linked to the policies and initiatives that have not been implemented.

While some, particularly within governing bodies, suggest that the soccer community as a whole represent the game and thus are responsible for its growth, both common sense and science show that growth is inherently organic when the right conditions exist. In the world of youth sport, these conditions are created through sound player-centric policy and the appropriate collection and allocation of material and human resources, none of which the broader soccer community (i.e. players and parents) have any control over. Therefore the onus is on the decision makers of our national, provincial and leagues governing bodies to create the necessary conditions conducive for real growth of the grassroots base.

Over the past decade there has been unprecedented cooperation between the CSA and its provincial member associations. From this cooperation, the CSA driven initiative Long Term Player Development (LTPD) was born. The CSA is now following this up with its Club Charter program, in draft form at least, it’s primarily composed of cosmetic standards for the branding and operations of clubs while reinforcing the commitment to the LTPD initiative. “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” (Kellough, 2015a). “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” (Kellough, 2015b). If we truly want to live up to the #GrowingTheGame moniker, the solution may very well be found in futsal.

Futsal as the Catalyst for Cultural Change

It’s simply not debatable, the best footballing (soccer) nations, developing the best players have a cultural connection to the game much the same way Canada does with hockey. If we are truly serious about wishing to join this group of nations one day, we too must establish a cultural connection to soccer. Doing so is the only way for Canada to achieve growth and technical development in the game and the most basic, affordable and organic way to do this is through Futsal.

While I believe it is imperative we develop an affordable national futsal infrastructure framework (Kellough, 2015b), the time component to complete this is simply too long to remain idle for the interim. We need to take immediate measures that will provide immediate benefits, get kids playing the game right now. But where? The only thing more ubiquitous than hockey rinks in Canada is schools!

futsal-school-4Canada Soccer and it’s provincial member associations should advocate to have futsal included in the lunch hour intramural and after school sports programs in every middle and high school across this country. But here’s the catch. That’s as far as their involvement goes! These are school run programs, not sanctioned programs for the hierarchy of governing body’s to capitalize on and syphon player fees! Supervision should be the extent of adult involvement here, particularly during the middle school years which coincide with the golden age of learning and player development. Clubs, private enterprise and certified coaches need not apply unless they are happy to be a pro bono babysitter. These need to be non-structured free-play programs, open to all at no cost… the last frontier of affordable soccer in Canada! These programs may, for many possibly, be their first introduction to what will hopefully become a lifelong passion or for experienced players, an opportunity to fall back in love with the game. Youth sports have become a big business in North America and with so many competing interests, the notion of “pickup”, “free-play” in the park has become extinct in Canada. We have scheduled, structured and coached creativity, independent thought and fun almost completely out of youth sports.

Indeed there is little incentive to provide youth programming of any kind that doesn’t generate revenue, sadly this is the world we live in. That said, there is plenty of opportunity for both cash strapped schools and soccer’s governing bodies to “cash in” on futsal while still making it a much cheaper alternative to the currently skyrocketing costs to play soccer even at the recreational level. As awareness and participation in futsal grows, largely in part because of the implementation of school based programs, opportunity to add to the paltry eleven sanctioned leagues recognized by Futsal Canada will grow. Sanctioning of course means money in the coffers of governing bodies; however, schools undoubtedly have a much greater potential to pad their ailing pocket books by renting out gymnasium time in the evenings to both sanctioned and unsanctioned adult and youth futsal leagues.

A big part of the appeal of futsal is that it can be played in the ubiquity of small spaces with few people comparatively to its big brother – soccer. Less is more! I know from many, many years as a player, coach and administrator that team viability is a significant problem facing many clubs and leagues in youth soccer, particularly in the older age groups. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for teams of 8-12 committed players to disband due to insufficient roster sizes. Many of these players don’t find other teams to play with and end up leaving the game meanwhile, that same group of players could easily form a futsal team and remain connected to the game.

The affordability and infrastructure availability of this plan makes for a viable first phase to building a cultural connection with soccer in Canada. However, despite being public schools, one cannot simply gather some friends or strangers for a pickup game of futsal in the local school gym. This is why it remains essential that we develop a national futsal infrastructure framework to complement the growth of futsal in structured and unstructured environments thus developing the cultural connection to the game of soccer that is essential to actually #GrowTheGame.

“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” (Kellough, 2015b).

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.

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.