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.