Three years ago, the Canadian Soccer Association introduced "Wellness to World Cup", its long-term player development (LTPD) document. It is a warts-and-all examination of the state of the game in Canada, and casts a critical eye over the structure of Canadian soccer.
The document also identifies the seven stages of development that all players, male and female, go through from the time they are first introduced to the game as toddlers, to the time they hang up their boots for good.
Every sport in Canada has a similar development document, and while there are subtle differences between them, they all follow the same general framework for long-term athlete development.
Growth, maturation and development, trainability, and sport system alignment and integration are all covered by these documents, and there is a considerable amount of research to back up the principles they promote.
While the CSA has not yet released a national curriculum as such, it has provided some guidelines and suggestions with respect to the development of athletes over the seven stages of LTPD.
Which is why I get annoyed when I read articles like this.
The journalist in question has taken the results of a poll and concluded that winning and losing is good for kids. This argument is not based on any scientific research, nor is it based on consultations with child development specialists or trained coaches.
It is based on the opinions of a group of people who may or may not have any knowledge of sport or the development of children - just general members of the public - and passed it off as gospel.
The premise that "parents know what is best for their kids" is the underlying theme of the argument. And it is so far off the mark that it is almost not worth a response.
But I'll give one anyway.
Learning the fundamental skills
Keeping scores or standings is NOT the issue. The issue is that the competitive structure of youth soccer in many parts of our country is entirely based on winning and losing.
The issue is that players are not learning the fundamental skills required to be successful in the game, because the emphasis in youth soccer is on winning, rather than skill development.
At older ages, winning and losing is most definitely a part of player development. 'Training to Compete' and 'Training to Win' are the fifth and sixth stages of LTPD, where players learn how to compete and what is required to win. Those stages, however, do not begin for players until they are at least 15 years of age.
At younger ages, specifically under the age of 12, the focus of coaches should be on teaching players the core skills required to be successful in the game.
Unfortunately, the current structure of youth soccer rewards teams that win and punishes teams that lose, through a system of promotion and relegation that can begin for players as young as 8 years old. As a result of this win-at-all-costs system, players are failing to learn the fundamentals of the game.
Many coaches select their teams based on which players are best equipped to win from the ages of 8 or 9 onwards. Those are generally the players who are bigger, faster and stronger - who are developmentally advanced for their age - rather than those who have the potential to develop into talented soccer players given the right learning environment.
As a result of this selection process, very little emphasis is placed on skill acquisition or development below the age of 12. It doesn't matter if little Johnny can kick a ball properly if he is bigger and faster than his opponents; if his teammates kick the ball forward enough times, he'll use his physical advantage to score goals and his team will win.
Nothing wrong with that, you say?
What happens when little Johnny gets to be 15 or 16, and his physical advantage levels off as his peers catch up to him developmentally? He no longer has an advantage, and since he never learned to pass or control a ball properly, he is ill equipped to progress in the game because he lacks the fundamental skill-set with which to compete at an elite level.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that from the ages of 8 or 9, players must win a series of consecutive promotions with their team, from less competitive regional leagues through to the highly competitive provincial league, which begins at 13.
Failure to secure promotion in just one of those years can result in a mass exodus of players from a club. Parents believe that the only way for their son or daughter to reach the elite level of the game is by winning promotion and getting to the highest level of competition.
Because of this belief, parents "shop" their kids from one club to the next, year after year; they are searching for a trophy that they believe will open up a door for their child to the professional game, the national or provincial team, or in many cases, a scholarship opportunity.
This misguided approach is not the fault of the parents; they are conditioned from the time their children are at an early age to believe that winning is more important than anything. Skill development - building the foundation for future success in the game - is an afterthought and a distant second to the win-at-all-costs mentality that pervades youth soccer in Canada.
Focus on development, not winning
This is why scores and standings - and by extension, promotion and relegation - needs to be eliminated under the age of 12. The focus needs to shift away from winning and onto development.
This is not to say that kids should stop playing games and competing - that is not the principle behind eliminating scores and standings. If you take any group of kids and divide them into two teams, no one needs to keep scores or standings. Kids keep score amongst themselves, and they know full well who wins and who loses.
But their opportunity to reach the highest level that their ability can take them too should not be linked to the outcome of those games.
It would be like sending your children to school knowing that only the students who got straight A's would be allowed to move on to the next grade. No parent in their right mind would accept that scenario, yet that is essentially what the competitive structure of youth soccer in many parts of the country promotes. Only those who win are allowed to move on.
Kids need to be free to learn the core skills of the game - moving with a ball, passing and receiving, dribbling and shooting - without the fear that failure to win will result in a missed opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Parents need to understand that their children can and will learn those fundamentals at the correct stage of their development, even if they don't win every game from the age of 8 onwards. Coaches and clubs need to realize that they are the ones who ultimately control the successful implementation of LTPD. Doing away with scores and standings under the age of 12 is only the beginning. What is really required is a complete change in mentality - from win-at-all-costs to skill development.
Only when that happens will we truly see the benefits of long-term player development.
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