Former Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Martin Rennie wrote an interesting blog the other day. Its premise was that, in Rennie's opinion, there is not enough private enterprise (in the form of private soccer academies) in Canadian youth soccer for our country to develop its large pool of players.
Rennie suggested that private academies are more inclined to hire qualified coaches and are more determined to deliver quality development programs for players, since those private academies will not survive unless they offer quality programs.
While this may be true to a certain extent, the proliferation of private academies across the country is not a cure-all for our struggles in player development. There are a number of significant issues that are impeding the development of soccer in Canada.
The governance structure of Canadian soccer inhibits change
For years, the development of the game in Canada was hampered by a parochial governance structure. The presidents of each provincial soccer association sat on the CSA board of directors, where they lobbied for the interests of their own provincial associations, rather than for what the country, as a whole, required.
That has changed under the CSA's new governance model, where a blend of elected and appointed directors now govern the game effectively, by setting policy and direction for the game and empowering CSA staff to execute the Association's strategic objectives.
Unfortunately, that governance model has not yet trickled down to the provincial associations.
At the provincial and district levels, the game is still facing the same parochial challenges that have restricted soccer development for decades. Provincial boards of directors are largely comprised of district presidents, who are elected by their member clubs. Those district presidents are faced with an inherent conflict of loyalty: Do they do what is in the best interests of the game at the provincial (and by extension, the national) level, or do they do what is in the best interests of the clubs in their own district?
Far too often, district loyalties trump the greater good.
The result is a fractured, broken governance structure, where change rarely takes place - and when it does, it happens at a glacial pace.
Despite the obvious flaws in our governance structure, there are a great many people fighting for change across the country. Standards-based leagues - the starting point for an improved player development pathway - are being introduced across Canada. While these leagues are still in their infancy, I believe that they will create a much better environment for player development than what is currently in place.
The next step - and this goes back to Martin Rennie's blog - is for the barriers to private enterprise to be removed. Until such time as our standards-based leagues are open to both not-for-profit community clubs and private academies, we will always fall short of our developmental potential.
Without a 'Technical Development Plan', we will continue to go in circles
From late 2010 until the summer of 2012, I served as the Technical Director of the Oakville Soccer Club, Canada's largest not-for-profit community soccer club. My first task when hired was to create the club's technical development plan.
This document is ingrained within the club's five-year strategic plan, and serves as the club's "technical roadmap". It is a guide to help the club achieve its technical objectives, and is a reference for every major technical decision that the club makes. When the technical leadership changes, as it did when I joined TSN, the club does not fall into disarray because it knows what its technical objectives are and how it has planned to achieve them. The next technical director simply picks up where the previous one left off.
The technical development plan also provides the club's members (parents) with a clear summary of what the club is doing - everything from lobbying for the optimal player development structure in Ontario to investing in coach education within the club.
The single biggest criticism that can be levied against the Canadian Soccer Association is that it does not have (and in my opinion, has never had) a technical development plan. That a not-for-profit community club like Oakville has a publicly available plan and the CSA does not is baffling.
The CSA's technical development plan needs to be prominently displayed on the CSA's website for every coach, parent and player in Canada to read. It should clearly define the Association's technical objectives and give timeframes for achieving those objectives.
Ingrained within the plan should be the CSA's national curriculum, a template for player, coach and referee development in Canada. Without a national curriculum, coaches across the country are simply left to make things up as they go along – and given the poor job that we have collectively done in developing the nearly 850,000 soccer players in our country, it is fair to say that this approach is not working.
The plan should contain the coach education pathway, and give an overview of how coach education is going to improve in Canada. The introduction of an assessment-based licensing course for coaching young players - a "Youth Licence" - is just one example of improvements to coach education in Canada that should be in the works.
Without a plan, how are we to know where we are going? And - equally as important - how are we to judge if those in charge are taking us in the right direction?
An important component of the technical development plan must be coach education.
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," is what many critics say. And while this is true to a certain extent - many youth coaches who have been "in the system" for a long time don't want to learn or change their bad habits, and will continue to place winning ahead of player development - there are many coaches across the country who are hungry to learn about progressive, innovative development ideas.
These are the coaches upon whom we should focus our efforts.
Until the introduction of standards-based leagues, all you needed to coach the best young players in Canada was a heartbeat. You only needed to acquire an attendance-based coaching certificate (where showing up for the course meant you effectively passed) to coach at the highest level of youth soccer in Canada. That simply isn't acceptable if we are to improve our ability to develop young players.
Coach education in Canada is largely user-pay, whereby the coach funds the cost of their own education. We must make coach education as accessible as possible to as many coaches as possible, by reducing or eliminating the cost of these courses. Many clubs and organizations are contributing financially towards the education of their coaches, but the onus is on the CSA to restructure and reinvest in coach education across the country, as it is one of our key technical priorities.
There are many excellent private soccer academies across the country but there are also many excellent not-for-profit community soccer clubs, as well. To suggest that one business model contains a better development program than the other is simply misleading.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents cannot identify a superior player development program, because most of them have never been exposed to one. All they have been exposed to is the win-at-all-costs approach that permeates youth sports in our country. Yet parents are expected to choose a soccer program for their child, despite not knowing what it is they should be looking for.
At the very least, parents should look for an organization that utilizes qualified, age-appropriate coaches. This doesn't mean that the coaches need to be full-time, salaried coaches, but it does mean that the coaches should have - at minimum - the coaching qualifications required to teach your child. This applies especially to not-for-profit community soccer clubs, who are often forced to rely on unqualified parent coaches due to the volume of players registered at the club.
If a child shows promise and wishes to play competitively, parents should look for an organization that employs nationally licensed coaches. While I am the first to admit that a coaching license does not make one an excellent coach, I would argue that it does prove that a coach has demonstrated the knowledge to acquire the license, as well as a hunger for learning.
In terms of choosing a soccer organization, bigger is not always better, nor is your cheapest option necessarily your best option. While some large not-for-profit community clubs have excellent development programs, managing those programs is not easy. Does the club have adequate full or part-time technical staff to meet the needs of the players? Does the club invest in coach education? Are the coaches required to continue their coach education, and does the club pick up the cost of this education? The same questions can, and should, be asked of private academies.
Parents should consider the philosophy of the organization they choose. Do they promote a player-centric approach to development? By this I mean, will they move your child to the appropriate competitive level if their development merits such a move? Or do they lock your child into a "team" for an entire year, regardless of how well he or she develops over the course of that year?
There are benefits and drawbacks to choosing either a not-for-profit community club or a private academy, so it is important for parents to ask questions and solicit feedback from others who have had experience with the organizations in question.
Educating parents about player development is a massive obstacle to the development of the game in Canada - it is arguably our biggest hurdle. But it can be done. It simply requires time, patience and a consistent message.
During my time at the Oakville Soccer Club, I experienced the obstacle of parent education first-hand. Each and every parent whose path I crossed wanted one thing and one thing only - the very best for their child. My challenge was to convince them that I, too, had their child's best interests at heart.
When presented with a new method of developing young soccer players, many parents pushed back. Change is difficult for many people to accept, especially when they lack the background, education and experience within the game to understand the reasons why changes are being made.
"Why should our child play 5v5? Isn't soccer supposed to be 11v11?"
"When are you going to teach my kid to play a position?"
"This isn't real soccer!"
These are all legitimate questions from parents. They just require answers, which come through putting in the time to explain the teaching methods being used, through having the patience to understand the parents' point of view and through delivering a consistent message and rationale.
Eventually, parents begin to understand that a focus on individual skill development and a small-sided games approach to player development is the right way for their children to learn the game of soccer. The only evidence they need to see is the smiles on the faces of their children, who enjoy the game much more because they learn the skills they need to be successful.
There are many more challenges that we must overcome if we are to put Canada on the right path to success as a soccer-playing nation. But by understanding the issues that are holding us back, we can begin to work towards removing these barriers so that the next generation has a better chance of fulfilling their soccer dreams.