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Monday, March 7, 2011

When development is more important than “winning” in youth sports

The debate over how “competitive” youth sports is—and should or should not be—is not new. But it’s still a necessary, timely and valuable debate.

Where I am based, in southern Ontario (Canada), the “norm” in most, if not all youth team sports is to keep score—starting at the very earliest ages.

Importantly, sports such as soccer in this country are now (finally?) dealing with a central issue: is the notion of keeping scores and “winning” and “losing” essential in youth sports? More importantly, is it good for kids? And does it hinder—or help—their actual development in the sport?

The soccer leadership in Canada is planning to implement a plan entitled “Long Term Player Development”, based on development strategies that have proven successful in countries where soccer is far more advanced, including Australia. Many local Clubs in Canada have already begun implementing some elements of this strategy.

In short, the aim of “LTPD”, as it is now called, is to make soccer a sport that everyone, from kids to seniors, can and will want to play and enjoy—for life. A parallel strategy is to enhance individual player development through new and improved coaching philosophies and approaches that will also give more young players a chance to develop their individual skills without the day-to-day pressure of winning games. If successful, this change in approach would, for example, eliminate the youth soccer tradition (in many jurisdictions) of teams promoted and relegated, as occurs in professional soccer in most of the world.

By having a greater number of potentially elite players better improving their skills—rather than just a select few who have been identified at a very early age—the belief is that far more national-level players will be produced in our country, while still keeping the game "fun" for the vast majority of participants.

Now, the notion of “not keeping score” is one that will be debated, and should be. No new approach should just be adopted from on high without discussing the merits and the background research that ought to go along with it.

That said, my understanding of the “new” approach is that there will still be “competition” as part of skills development at the early ages, simply that winning and losing and related outcomes (promotion/relegation) will be de-emphasized, with individual skill development emphasized much more.

This seems to be a reasonable compromise, as long as young athletes are still given a chance to play, compete, improve and express themselves creatively on the field of play— in whatever sport.

One of the best defenses of the philosophy and potential impact of “LTPD” was penned recently by Jason de Vos, the one-time captain of the Canadian national soccer team. de Vos, now a commentator for CBC Sports, outlines his views and values here http://www.cbc.ca/sports/blogs/jasondevos/2011/03/the-benefits-of-no-scores-no-standings.html in a recent blog post.

Hopefully his comments will spur not only debate, but action, in the soccer community and beyond.

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