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.”
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?