I have to admit, the holiday season was good to me. For the first time in a long time, I was able to completely shut myself off from the soccer world and relax with family and friends.
This relaxed state of mind also provided me with a chance to catch up on some long-overdue reading. One topic that repeatedly came up was the effect that the 'recreational mentality' has on youth soccer in North America.
The recreational mentality believes that soccer is nothing more than a recreational sport; a means for kids to get some exercise, to run around with their friends, work up a sweat and tire out so that mum and dad can have some quiet time at home. The recreational mentality believes that unqualified, untrained volunteer parent coaches are all that is needed to teach kids how to play soccer. I mean, how hard can it be to teach a kid to run around and kick a ball?
Unfortunately, the recreational mentality does not exist solely at the house league level, where kids play soccer 'just for fun'. It can (and often does) exist in players who play competitive, or rep soccer.
Because these players win games against their peers - usually through advanced physical development rather than advanced technical ability - players, parents and coaches alike mistakenly believe this makes them 'elite' athletes - the best of the best. In reality, they are simply the best of a bad bunch.
Their win-loss-draw records, as well as their position in the latest 'power rankings', consume these 'elite' coaches, players and parents. Unfortunately, these are nothing more than artificial means for these individuals to determine success, because they have no idea what real success in player development looks like.
Talk to anyone who has earned a living by teaching young players the game of soccer in Canada, and the general consensus is that we, as a nation, sink to the lowest common denominator. We do just enough to get by - glorified babysitting, in many cases - because we allow those who have never reached the professional or international levels of the game to dictate the terms under which we develop young players. By doing so, we bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator.
In the last year, I have witnessed 15 and 16-year-old players - both male and female - competing at the highest levels of youth soccer across Canada. Most of these players were unable to kick a ball properly with both feet.
This is the equivalent of 15 or 16-year-old 'AAA' hockey players not being able to skate backwards. We would never stand for it in hockey, so why do we allow it to happen in soccer?
The answer is very simple. We allow it to happen because we do not want to make the difficult decisions that need to be made in order to create a truly exceptional youth development system.
Why won't we make those difficult decisions? We do not want to upset the recreational masses that make up the vast majority of registrants in Canadian soccer. Why don't we want to upset them? Their registration dollars contribute nearly 40% of the CSA's annual budget, and a significant portion of every provincial association's annual revenue stream.
Creating a truly professional development environment at the youth level requires that the CSA (or the provincial governing bodies, as an extension of the CSA) mandate standards for youth soccer with respect to coaching, training and competition. Doing so - while it would absolutely be the right thing to do - would have a polarizing effect on many youth clubs and academies.
Those that were unable or unwilling to meet the mandated standards would be hesitant to remain members of their provincial associations and, by extension, the CSA. This would result in a massive drop-off in registered players in Canada, which would bring a corresponding drop in revenue for both the provincial associations and the CSA. Non-compliant organizations would simply decide to 'go rogue', by not registering their players with their governing bodies.
This is already happening in many parts of the country. Disgruntled by a perceived lack of return for their registration dollars year after year, many youth soccer clubs (many of whom who feel their primary objective is to deliver 'recreational' soccer as cheaply as possible) have balked at registering their players with their provincial associations. One such group of clubs has over 15,000 players, all playing recreational soccer 'outside the system' - and not sending a penny in registration money to their governing bodies.
When you start adding up the numbers, you can see why the governing bodies have a problem on their hands.
The solution? Perhaps it is time to consider two separate development streams in Canadian soccer - recreational (which would encompass the vast majority of registrants who play the game) and high performance (which would focus on providing a professional development environment for the small percentage of players and coaches who take the game seriously.)
My next blog will explore this idea further, as well as how a new financial model could be put in place to achieve success in both streams.