As the London Olympics draw near, the Canadian hunger for medals is becoming ravenous. The Own the Podium mentality of Vancouver 2010 exposed a passion for gold in a country that used to assert, if only half-heartedly, that just doing your best was good enough.
So with all this butt-kicking swagger redefining the national character, it may seem strange that a large swath of Canadian sport is deliberately moving away from the winning-is-everything philosophy.
All of the country’s 56 national sports bodies, under the direction of Sport Canada, are crafting long-term athlete development (LTAD) programs that value having fun and honing skills over hoisting trophies. In highly detailed documents that reflect a best-practices approach to achieving sports excellence, organizations such as the Canadian Soccer Association are spelling out a mandate for training young athletes in less openly competitive, more age-appropriate ways.
Far from making kids soft and undermining robust Canadian values, this change is part of a broader strategy to boost national performance at the highest levels. Less emphasis on winning, the theory goes, means more room for creativity and, ultimately, more world-beating skills.
How will youth sports be altered? Among the Ontario Soccer Association’s innovations for the upcoming outdoor season: Tournaments for players under the age of 8 will be replaced by one-day “festivals” where scores aren’t officially counted, teams may be blended together, players will try out different positions and play an equal amount of time irrespective of ability, team standings will be junked and no trophies will be awarded at the end. And just as important – in an ambitious youth-sports milieu where international tourneys for children as young as 7 or 8 aren’t unknown – all festivals are meant to be played locally with neighbouring teams.
“Every unnecessary minute spent in a car is time that could be spend on the pitch learning the game,” says Alex Chiet, technical director for the Ontario Soccer Association, one of the leaders in redefining sport’s role in Canadian life.
Such top-down transformation may be relatively easy to implement with the centralized bureaucracies that administer more technical minority sports such as speed skating and diving. For mass-participation sports like hockey and youth soccer, where the nature of play is determined more by deeply committed parents and the values they bring than by a national regulatory body, this means a total culture change – one that may be at odds with both the traditions of the game in Canada and the broader social message of an increasingly competitive world.
“It’s a huge mentality shift and we’re hitting it head on,” says Mr. Chiet, a New Zealander who was formerly the high-performance manager for his country’s undefeated 2010 World Cup team. “Parents may not understand how detrimental it is to overemphasize winning, so they think we’re being too politically correct. But we simply want to provide the best possible environment for the child, and winning at all costs is not what’s best.”
Winning is the easiest way to measure success in sports. But the overvaluing of victory often leads coaches to take shortcuts – favouring the best players, dumbing down technique, using fear as a motivator – that cheats players of the pleasure they might expect from sport.
Ben Deller-Usher is a 15-year-old Toronto student who walked away from the old-school style of soccer because “it was really, really boring.” He likes a pretty style of soccer where players are allowed to be creative with their ball-handling and passing. But he became frustrated when he came up against “negative tactics”: Coaches had their players kick the ball long to tall and fast teammates, which took the beauty out of the beautiful game.
He’s switched to piano lessons but hasn’t given up his soccer dreams completely. “I hope to get my coaching badges and start my own team,” he says. “My goal will be to build good players, not just try to win.”
The winning mentality has numerous drawbacks, Canada’s sports leaders say, not least that it doesn’t produce more better athletes.
“We want young players to develop basic motor skills, to learn how to control the ball, to look up and perceive what’s around them, to make decisions,” says Sylvie Béliveau, the Canadian Soccer Association’s manager of long-term player development. “For us developers of the sport, this is what is precious. But when winning is what’s important, what you hear from adults is ‘Kick it away, get rid of it.’ The fear of losing, the fear of making a mistake takes over.”