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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Why Geographic Boundaries are Bad for Competitive Youth Sports

Youth sports leagues are organized and managed in a variety of ways. Some tend to be more open and player centric while others are more regulated and club centric. The need for both exists depending on the leagues purpose and the clientele it serves. Geographical boundaries are but one form of regulation some youth sports league choose to impose. The premise is simple, a populous area, be it a town, city or region, served by the league is divided into districts or catchment areas from which its sporting clubs can draw upon for their player base. Seems fair enough if the league is a recreational sports league with the mandate to make sports fun and accessible to everyone. By forcing participants to register for a specific team based on their residence, it can offer benefits to both club and player. It ensures the survival of clubs with a guaranteed player base and it also ensures there is a program in place to serve the local general population. In theory this regulation seems a great benefit to all but very quickly situations that challenge its eminence can be identified, particularly when developmental or premier level of play is the league mandate.

Supply vs. Demand
Many youth sports leagues and/or their clubs cap the number of teams a club can enter in any given division or age group. Some clubs can easily max out their team allotment while others struggle simply to form a team. Sometimes player demand is greater than a clubs ability to supply them with teams or vice versa. Geographic boundaries don’t allow the “excess” players that didn’t make the cut at one club to join another club that may be struggling just to field a team. In a developmental or premier developmental league this is entirely counter productive to the league’s mandate to help players develop at a level beyond that of recreational play. Often players that want to train and develop get shut out from that experience due to rules prohibiting the crossing of boundaries. Such a system is in effect for Winnipeg’s only sanctioned youth soccer league. There are two clubs in particular that have operated efficiently and marketed themselves remarkably well to the point they have to cut a significant number of kids from most age groups every season, prohibiting them from playing developmental league soccer. Meanwhile, other city clubs struggle to form a single team and often having to depend on forms of age advancement to shuffle kids around simply to field teams in most age groups.

Degraded Competition
In premier/high performance leagues, clubs are often allowed to field a single premier team and sometimes one or more reserve or premier developmental teams. Great, few would dispute limiting a premier league to a single team of the top players each club has to offer. But, what if the castaways from one club who’s player supply far exceeds team limits are better players than those that struggling clubs are able to recruit? Under the restrictions of geographical boundaries, clubs that have difficulties recruiting players are sometimes forced to accept whoever can pay and wants to play, regardless of ability. Effectively creating a “pay to play” glorified rec league team. Such instances degrade the competition and are counter productive to the mandate of a “Premier” league.

Player Choice
Realistically, any player that chooses to play a sport at a developmental/primer level is generally committed to the sport and their personal growth within said sport. Whether these players have ambitions of playing at the highest youth levels, professionally, earn a college scholarship or become a coach, something beyond the recreational mentality of simply being active and having fun drives these players. They pay a premium financially and in the time they commit to learning their craft. Players and by extension their parents who pay the bills and invest significant time into their children’s sporting development ought to have a say in where and whom they wish to entrust with that development. Player satisfaction and development go hand in hand and can be tied to countless factors including club administration, technical staff experience and expertise, quality of training partners, club philosophy and ambition just to scratch the surface. If the player isn’t satisfied with some aspect of their club and doesn’t feel it is providing the development they were expecting or don’t feel they are receiving good value for their time and money why should they not be allowed to explore alternatives? We tend to think the grass will be greener on the other side only to find out it seldom is but for those who wish to explore, why stand in their way? In a society that prides itself on freedom of choice it’s a shame we offer our children so little in their sporting development.

What Would Open Boundaries Mean?
It’s widely believed clubs that oppose open boundaries are afraid their programs will suffer, perhaps even collapse. That’s rubbish! Under open boundaries there would indeed be a lot of player movement in and out of all clubs before settling down. Ultimately I think we would see a significant rise in the participation rate as the program becomes more accessible, this would result in club and subsequently league growth. Players once neglected by the harsh supply/demand reality of geographical boundaries would finally have the option of playing elsewhere and getting the developmental opportunities they seek and deserve. The primary benefactors of this would be the clubs struggling to field teams.

The Winners and the Losers
Under the restrictions of geographical boundaries everyone involved in competitive youth sports loses! The leagues, its clubs and all the players end up suffering in one form or another. Under open boundaries everyone from individual players right up national programs can benefit. Leagues and their clubs benefit financially from increased participation, players are given greater control and decision making in their development and this all leads to a larger, better trained player population which can benefit provincial and national programs.