A small number of bigger or faster players can dominate this style of game, leaving the rest to stand around and lose interest. And overvaluing this physical superiority in an age-group sport also means that smaller and later-maturing players are overlooked.
“Lionel Messi is arguably the best player in the world and he was a tiny kid,” says Bobby Lennox of the York Region Soccer Association north of Toronto. “A Canadian kid that small likely wouldn’t be identified and that talent would be lost to the world.”
The Ontario soccer festivals’ model of player development, which will be extended to all players under 12, is designed to keep players more engaged with the game and help them learn technique in their teachable early years. Other countries have adopted LTAD as their norm – South Africa even uses it with their sailing program – and in a globalized sports environment, Canada has to adapt or fall further behind.
“If you look at team sport in Canada,” says Richard Way, one of LTAD’s architects, “we don’t do very well internationally.”
That sense of failure may not resonate widely with a viewing public that took a more optimistic message home from Vancouver 2010. But in a sport like soccer, where Canada should have the resources and population mix to compete globally, mediocre performances have prompted considerable self-criticism.
“The model we’ve been using is basically flawed,” Mr. Way says. “You see Canada playing Chile and marvel at the beautiful skill of the Chileans one-on-one. And you wonder what’s wrong with our national team. But it didn’t happen there. It started when they went to an under-8 tournament and their creativity was drilled out of them by parents yelling at them to kick the ball.”
Of course there are many competing models for how best to instill sports creativity and athletic achievement in the young. Ambitious parents can point to the single-minded determination embodied by Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams or the Toronto Blue Jays’ precocious young third-baseman Brett Lawrie.
But such intense concentration at a young age generally does more harm than good, say the sport experts tasked with charting Canada’s long-term progress. We fixate on the successes – assuming Tiger Woods is a success in the broadest sense – but miss the burnouts who walked away from the game, the busts who peaked too early because of a narrowly defined skill set, and the all-rounders excluded from the elite pool because they failed to wow a sport’s talent spotters at the age of 6.
“We’re seeing a tremendous degree of overspecialization with kids at a young age because of their parents’ misunderstanding,” Mr. Way says. “Yet we just completed a survey of 180 Olympic athletes and the overwhelming majority began to specialize at 14 or 15 years of age, not when they were 8 or 9. The majority also ended up going to the Olympics in sports that were not their No. 1 specialty when they were 8 or 9.”
The proponents of long-term athlete development like to talk about physical literacy as a way of explaining what they’re trying to create in budding athletes – a lifelong benefit with wider applications than the simplistic version of success that a philosophy of winners (and losers) might encourage.
“Creating a better national team is definitely a goal,” says Diarmuid Salvadori, a youth soccer coach in Richmond Hill, Ont. “But it’s more important that we increase the number of players participating and make sure they enjoy it. If they enjoy playing, they’re going to stay in the game longer. And if you look at the bigger picture, this is also about having a healthier and more active Canada.”
Critics of the long-term athlete development model say that even as it touts its broader societal benefits, it is simply a gentler method of creating a more successful elite program.
“Some of us suspect that it’s become another way of talent spotting, a method of selecting out kids for hot-housing,” says Peter Donnelly, director of the Centre for Sport Policy Studies at the University of Toronto.
In an Own the Podium milieu, where athletic success fuels national pride more than it inspires participation, a sports system that promises to produce more medals may still be an acceptable social ideal. But if it also teaches young children basic athletic skills and makes their games more engaging, the net benefits could become more widespread. When was the last time that fun was a basic goal of public policy?