At last count, there were 847,616 registered soccer players in Canada, making soccer the largest participation sport in Canada. By comparison, hockey tallies 617,107 registered players from coast-to-coast.
Like every other sport in Canada, soccer is heavily dependent on an army of volunteers. From administrators to coaches, there are countless hard-working, dedicated people who lend their time and effort towards the betterment of the game and the betterment of their communities. Their efforts should be applauded, because without them many organized sports - including soccer - simply would not exist.
In a discussion on twitter recently about the caliber of coaching on offer at the grassroots level in Canada, an interesting point was raised. How do we balance 'quantity vs. quality?' Is it better to get as many kids playing the sport as possible, regardless of whether their coaches have any knowledge of the sport, or should we instead extend the participant base only so far as the qualified coaching capacity can sustain?
Like any discussion, there are arguments to be made for both sides.
The vast majority of community clubs across Canada have a coaching faculty that is volunteer-driven. These coaches are often parents who have been asked to coach their child's team, due to a shortage of qualified coaches. Some parent-coaches have experience within the game, but many have no coaching qualifications or experience whatsoever. They volunteer their time to coach their child's team because without them, many of those teams would have no coach.
Parent-coaches are often very dedicated and take their role as coach very seriously. They want, more than anything, for their child and their child's teammates to have a great experience playing the game of soccer. So while they lack the knowledge and training of a certified coach, they show dedication and enthusiasm for the job at hand. These parent-coaches deserve our admiration and respect, for without them, many of our children wouldn't get the opportunity to play soccer.
Relying heavily on parent-coaches does provide more children the opportunity to play the game in an organized fashion. But it also hinders the chances of those players remaining engaged in the game over the long-term.
Children tend to enjoy sports at which they perceive that they are achieving success. Central to that success is the ability to execute the fundamental skills of the sport. Throwing and catching a baseball, for example, are core skills in baseball. Skating and stick-handling a puck are core skills in hockey, while doing the front crawl is a core skill in swimming.
As a coach, the ability to execute these core skills oneself is central to being able to teach them to young players. After all, youth coaches are simply teachers of sport. For example, when was the last time you saw a hockey coach who couldn't skate? Or a swimming coach who couldn't do the front crawl? If, like me, you subscribe to the belief that the primary role of youth coaches is to teach, consider this: When was the last time you saw a math teacher who couldn't add and subtract or a French teacher who couldn't speak French?
There may be exceptions but they certainly aren't the norm. Yet it is commonplace in youth soccer to see coaches who cannot kick a ball, let alone teach a child how to do so.
We accept it in soccer for a variety of reasons. Some argue that Canada is not a soccer-loving nation (I disagree with this), while others argue that coach education is too expensive and onerous. There are still more who think that soccer 'isn't that difficult to figure out' and that coaches can migrate from other sports and pick it up quite easily. We've all heard the proverbial 'hockey dad turned soccer coach' stories - all too common, unfortunately.
And here is where the quantity (getting as many players playing soccer as possible) versus quality (getting players working with trained, qualified coaches) debate takes root.
What solutions are available to improve the standard of coaching in Canadian youth soccer, so that more players are working with trained, qualified coaches? Should the CSA mandate that all youth soccer coaches - regardless of the level at which they are coaching - acquire the corresponding LTPD coaching certification? Should the CSA mandate that all coaches in the 'competitive' or 'talented' stream have a National B license qualification or higher?
The tipping point may have to do with the actual cost of coach education. I've said before that the most significant improvement that can be made to soccer in Canada is to make coach education courses free of charge. It wouldn't be as expensive as many think, either.
In 2011 in Ontario, the Ontario Soccer Association generated $638,636 of revenue through coaching clinics. With overall revenues that year of nearly $12 million, this represents a little more than 5 per cent of total revenue. That doesn't represent a crippling amount of money, given the importance of coach education, does it? Can the OSA, in unison with the CSA and its corporate partners, find a way to offset those costs so that coach education becomes free in Ontario? Can other provinces in Canada do the same?
UEFA is the governing body of soccer in Europe and its coaching qualifications are considered by many to be among the best in the world. Consider the total number of UEFA B, A and Pro license coaches that the following countries in Europe have to offer: France has 17,588; Spain has 23,995; Italy has 29,420; Germany has 34,970.
The corresponding qualifications in Canadian soccer are the National B and A licenses (the CSA is developing a Pro license course). Any idea how many National B and A license coaches there are in Canada?
All kinds of reasons can be put forward as to why there are so few nationally qualified coaches in Canada. Cost, lack of job opportunities, cultural differences, and availability of courses are all legitimate concerns. But they don't take away from the fact that coach education is not regarded highly enough by everyone in Canadian soccer, from the CSA down to the grassroots clubs.
So what is the solution? Do we mandate coaching qualifications for youth soccer coaches at every level, knowing full well that clubs will have to turn away players because of a lack of qualified coaches? Do we offer free coach education courses for all coaches, knowing that such a move will likely bring with it a corresponding increase in fees? Do we do nothing, bury our heads in the sand and just hope it all gets better?
This is a multi-faceted problem with no black and white answer - like most of the problems faced by Canadian soccer.
As a parent, I would gladly pay more to ensure that qualified, licensed coaches teach my children. Do the math. In Ontario, for example, there are over 370,000 registered soccer players. A fee increase of a couple of dollars - the cost of a coffee - would make up the revenue of the current coach education program. To educate all coaches in the province would surely cost more, but is the education of our coaches - who are the teachers of our soccer-loving children - not worth it?