The world of soccer is continuously changing; news now regularly breaks on Twitter, and rarely does a day pass where a link to an interesting article fails to land in your inbox.
This easy access to information has been a good thing. It has brought clubs closer together, allowing them to reach out and connect with other clubs across the country, enabling them to benefit from sharing knowledge.
It has also given people a forum in which to exchange ideas, discuss problems, and develop solutions to the myriad of issues that are holding back the game in our country.
Like ignorance, for example.
I was sent a link to an article that was published last week, in which it was inferred that putting the emphasis on development in youth soccer, as opposed to winning, is a bad thing.
The question was raised, "Isn't the whole idea in becoming better that you win more than you lose?"
Long-term player development will grow the game
My answer to this is yes, the purpose of becoming better is to win more than you lose. But in youth soccer in Canada, skill development does not happen as a natural extension of the current win-at-all-costs system that is in place.
The question arose because of a decision not to award medals to the winners of the Eastern Ontario District Soccer Association (EODSA) leagues. The justification for this decision was due in part to financial limitations, but also because, as the article quoted, "the presentation of medals is considered to emphasize winning versus player development, which is the new focus of OSA programs."
The author then made the assumption that winning is no longer considered to be a part of player development, and that winning is a now considered a "bad thing." The author then questioned the legitimacy of this policy - which is where I took exception.
The policy in question is the CSA's long-term player development plan, or LTPD. It is based on Sport Canada's long-term athlete development plan, or LTAD.
It wasn't something created on a whim, nor was it scribbled on the back of a napkin. It is backed by volumes of research on the growth and development of children, the stages of development that they all go through, and the optimal environments in which they flourish.
Virtually every sport in the country has a long-term development plan based on LTAD.
Single-minded strategy a 'mirage'
For years, the competitive structure of youth soccer in Ontario has been based on the "Pyramid for Play," where teams are rewarded for winning by being promoted to a higher level of competition. The highest level of the pyramid is Level One, represented by the Ontario Youth Soccer League, which comes into play when children are 14 years of age.
The problem with this system of promotion and relegation is that, by its very nature, it forces coaches to "play to win" with children as young as nine years old. There is no need for them to try to develop players who are technically skilled, because there is a shortcut available to them.
The easiest way to win in youth soccer is to choose the biggest, strongest, fastest kids, and rely on their physical superiority to outmuscle their opponents.
In doing this, very little emphasis is placed on teaching kids the fundamental skills of the game - because there is no need to. Generally, the big, strong, fast kid who can "boot it" the hardest can be successful in youth soccer up until about the age of 14.
Unfortunately, this success is all a mirage.
Eventually, the physical advantage of these players levels off, and when it does, the kid who was a star player when they were younger - simply because they had a physical advantage - is no longer able to compete at a high level.
Why does it even matter, you ask? What difference does it make if that kid can no longer compete? Why don't we just play to win at all ages, survival of the fittest, so to speak?
Because not only are we driving away players who have the potential to be top players simply because they are physically immature for their age, we are also doing a disservice to those kids who are athletically gifted at a young age by not teaching them the skills they need to be successful in the game over the longer term.
We have all seen a kid playing a game and dominating the opposition because they are athletically superior. It didn't matter that they couldn't trap a bag of cement, or that their first touch was about as soft as a brick wall - they could run like the wind and kick the ball harder than any of their peers.
Physically-dominant kids need skills, too
Now imagine what that kid could do in the game if they were put in an environment where they were taught to control the ball, to have a velvety first touch, to spray passes all over the park. Imagine if they were free to develop those abilities in an environment where they were allowed to make mistakes, without the fear of losing a game and missing out on promotion.
How much better do you think that athletically-gifted kid would become?
LTPD puts the emphasis on development because these are children we are dealing with. They all need to be given time to learn the game - not just the ones who finish first because they are physically mature for their age.
Ultimately, we play soccer to win the game. That is the goal of all sporting contests. The issue here isn't about whether or not to give out medals to kids - most would agree that there are life lessons to be learned through winning and losing, and I'm one of them.
The issue is the assumption that because kids are winning, they are developing effectively. I would argue that our lack of depth at the international level suggests otherwise. Our system is broken and needs to be fixed - and no amount of medals is going to do that.
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