The Vancouver Whitecaps were denied a well-earned three points against the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, after Gonzalo Pineda converted a controversial penalty kick to level the score at 2-2. Whitecaps skipper Jay DeMerit was judged to have fouled Sounders striker Cam Weaver, though the "foul" that DeMerit allegedly committed was a mystery to me.
In the aftermath of the game, I tweeted this:
To which I received this response:
While Mr. Empringham's tweet wasn't relative to the Vancouver Whitecaps game against the Seattle Sounders, it did highlight another important point: LTPD, the CSA's long-term player development program, is still very misunderstood.
According to his twitter bio, Mr. Empringham is an elementary school teacher who coaches basketball, soccer and track. Given his occupation, he would appear to be the ideal proponent of the principles of LTPD. Yet he seems adamantly opposed to the removal of scores and standings for youth soccer players below the age of 13.
While the removal of scores and standings is just one small component of the changes brought forward by LTPD, the concept still faces considerable pushback. I believe that much of that pushback comes from the general public's misunderstanding of the reason why scores and standings have been removed.
Keeping scores and standings is not inherently bad for children. We haven't been doing young players a disservice all of these years by tracking the results of their games, nor by adding up their wins and losses at the end of their seasons. What we have done, though, is compromise their development by linking their opportunities within the game – perceived or otherwise – to their results on the field.
As it is my home province, I will use Ontario to explain.
Until the introduction of LTPD, the "Pyramid for Play" (the name of the competitive structure for youth soccer in Ontario) was based on promotion and relegation between multiple tiers. The higher the tier, the more "competitive" the level of play. Tier 1, provincial "rep" soccer, was considered the highest level of play, while Tier 7, local "house league" soccer, was the introductory level.
Teams who won their leagues (or finished in the top two or three, in some cases) were promoted to the next highest tier, while teams who finished bottom of their leagues (or finished in the bottom two or three, in some cases) were demoted to the next lowest tier.
This movement of teams every year caused a major problem.
Players as young as 9 were coming under immense pressure to win promotion - primarily from their coaches and parents. In some cases, failure to win promotion would lead to the break up of an entire team, as players would scatter over the off-season in order to tryout for teams that did win promotion.
The concept of promotion and relegation created a false belief amongst coaches and parents that the key to success in the game - the way for kids to "make it" - was to play at the Tier 1 level, which began at the under-14 age category. The years leading up to under-14 were becoming a dogfight, as players jostled to be on a team that was poised to win promotion to Tier 1. It didn't really matter how games were won, or what players were learning, so long as promotion was achieved. The competitive structure itself reinforced this "win at all costs" mentality, and youth soccer in Ontario found itself spiralling into a vicious cycle that was getting worse every year.
In my time working as the Technical Director of the Oakville Soccer Club, I once had to gather the parents of an entire age group's competitive program after a fight had broken out amongst parents on the sidelines of an under-10 boys game.
On another occasion, I had to intervene on the field of a house league game, as the coaches and parents were incensed by a call made by the referee – who was a 16-year-old girl – and were verbally abusing the young lady. Yet another incident saw a 14-year-old referee leave the field in tears after being verbally abused by spectators at a game.
Over time, we have collectively lost sight of the fact that youth soccer is a game that is supposed to be enjoyed by its players, coaches and spectators. Young children shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of "needing to win this game" in order to win promotion or avoid relegation. That pressure is difficult enough for seasoned professional players to handle.
Imagine if children had to finish in the top three in their class in order to graduate to the next grade each year? Our school system would devolve into chaos - we'd have parents submitting homework and assignments on behalf of their children, as they'd be terrified that their kids would miss out on graduation!
Critics have argued that over-competitiveness amongst parents is a societal issue, and that other sports suffer from the same problems. If that is the case though, then surely it is up to our governing bodies to try to better the environments in which our children experience the game of soccer? Surely they should do everything in their power to compensate for our society's failings?
Critics have also suggested that, rather than removing scores and standings, we should just remove promotion and relegation from the system. But doing so is far more difficult than it sounds.
For starters, how does one determine which teams play at which competitive level? Does one make that determination based on population, geographic location, club size or historical club "success" – all the while knowing that any "success" that was previously achieved was done in a flawed system that was systematically abused?
Additionally, there are many people firmly entrenched within the clubs and districts who rule the game in Canada who don't think anything is wrong with how we develop soccer players. Some of those individuals believe this because they do not know what a genuine, player-centric development system should look like, while others believe this because they have a vested financial interest in maintaining the status quo.
It is those individuals who will fight the hardest to maintain the previous competitive structure.
The only way to combat this is through education – by shining a light on what our real problems are. Because the only way we are going to fix our problems is if we first acknowledge what they really are.
It isn't about scores and standings being "bad" for kids. It is about the behaviour that keeping scores and standings brings out in adults.