The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don't know anything about.
- Wayne Dyer
There have been a number of articles published recently, focusing on a small component - the removal of scores and standings for youth soccer below the age of 12 - of the Canadian Soccer Association's long-term player development plan (LTPD). Some of the articles have been reasonably balanced and fair, while others have missed the point completely.
Since LTPD was launched in 2008, I have spent a considerable amount of time researching the principles upon which the soccer-specific plan is based, found in Sport Canada's long-term athlete development plan (LTAD). Every sport in Canada – including hockey – is adopting the LTAD model. The Canadian Sport for Life website is an excellent resource, if you wish to learn more about LTAD.
I can confidently tell you this; LTPD provides a roadmap for the development of a soccer player, from the time they first begin kicking a ball to the time they hang up their boots. It promotes the learning of core skills and fundamentals – at the correct stage of a child's development – so that he or she can spend a lifetime enjoying the game of soccer.
LTPD isn't about removing competition, nor is it about providing young athletes with a sense of false achievement. It is about creating an environment where every child can learn the skills they need to achieve success in the game, and then allowing them to apply these skills in competitive formats that are age-appropriate.
Change is never easy. When it affects the most important people in our lives - our children - our tendency is to reject change. "We never did this when I was a kid, and I turned out just fine!" is a line that is repeatedly used by critics who neither understand the reasons for the change, nor the problems that the change is meant to address.
When those critics are given a platform to spread misinformation about LTPD - like Don Cherry did recently on his radio show, Grapeline - I get annoyed. Not because those critics have an opinion – everyone is entitled to have one – but that they have based their opinion on nothing more than their gut feeling.
Those critics have not bothered to read the literature and research that is freely available on LTPD, nor have they attempted to understand the reasons behind the removal of scores and standings for children under the age of 12.
I'll spare them the trouble and explain it all in plain English.
Keeping scores and standings, in and of itself, is not detrimental to the development of young soccer players. In fact, it is beneficial for them. There are valuable lessons to be learned through winning and losing in team sports, although research suggests that children under the age of 12 quickly forget the outcome of the game shortly after it is completed, so just how important it is to teach those lessons that early in life is certainly open for debate.
The "life lessons" that are learned through winning and losing can (and should) occur when children are emotionally and psychologically mature enough to comprehend their meaning. They should also occur after children have learned the skills with which the game is played.
What critics fail to understand is that LTPD actually PROMOTES the teaching of these lessons - at the correct stage of a child's development, once they have learned the fundamentals of the game.
The reason that scores and standings are being removed for players under the age of 12 is not because the children are causing themselves irreparable harm by tracking their results. It is because adults are using scores and standings as the only measurement of success. They have taken an adult competition format, involving promotion and relegation, and imposed it on children. In doing so, the adults have compromised what is supposed to be a child-centred learning environment and replaced it with an adult-centric pressure cooker.
This pressure-filled environment has nasty repercussions for children. Rather than fostering their natural creativity and curiosity about the game, it stunts their development. In such an environment, children are not free to make the mistakes that are necessary for learning to occur. They play the game with a sense of dread, fearful that a mistake will lead to a goal against or a lost game.
"Boot it!" "Send it!" and "Get rid of it!" are all screamed at young players from an early age. Does this encourage them to express themselves freely, or does it have the opposite effect, stifling their natural creativity?
Many will argue that the way to improve the game for players below the age of 12 is to improve the standard of coaching. You will get no argument from me on this. In fact, I believe that the CSA should do whatever it can to remove barriers to coach education, including finding a way to pick up the tab for the costs of coach education courses.
However, coach education is only one component of improving the game in Canada. We need a complete shift in our mentality towards the game at the grassroots level. We need to treat our young soccer players much like students who attend school. After all, our young soccer players are simply students of the game, needing to learn the skills of the game that will lead to long-term success, rather than short-term glory.
Keeping scores is not, in my opinion, the problem. Kids keep score no matter what game they play, and they will continue to keep score even after scores have been 'officially' removed. The problem is our system of promotion and relegation, which is entirely dependent on keeping standings. Removing these concepts from the game for children below the age of 12 will go a long way towards improving their learning environments – something we can all agree is in their best interests.