Editor’s note: This post was updated on Nov. 19, 2019.
Think about this question for a moment: What is the most important reason that you introduce your kids to sports during the first decade of their lives?
Is it to teach them the elation of “winning” and the disappointment of “losing”?
Is it so they can learn “how to lose”?
Do you hope to impress upon them that competition is a part of life?
Or, is it to foster in their young minds the importance of being active, participating in sports and activities they enjoy, and learning the fundamental skills to “get better” at any sport they choose to be involved with?
These are important questions for every parent to keep in mind, for they drive to the heart of a heated debate taking place in Canada right now. It began when the Ontario Soccer Association announced that it intends to mandate the removal of standings from youth leagues (kids under the age of 12) in 2014 as part of its Long Term Player Development plan (LTPD).
The Ontario Soccer Association changes things up
The association’s view is that player development is optimized by creating an environment where every child has an opportunity to learn the skills they need to progress in the game, and by allowing that child to apply those skills in competitive formats that are age-appropriate. (That last term, age-appropriate, is what’s so crucial to keep in mind here.)
OSA president Ron Smale explains the rationale behind this new approach on the organization’s official website:
Surely we aren’t relying on kids ‘losing a soccer game’ at the age of 9 or 10 to teach them about disappointment, handling adversity, sportsmanship or competing?” Smale asserts. “Before we expect a student to apply for Law School—and possibly ‘fail’ in their attempt—we make sure they have the basics down cold through years of study, training and proper support in the ‘system’. That’s the least we should do with children in sport before we make them deal with things like ‘relegation’.
Smale continues: “It’s time to measure ‘success’ differently. If some people really and truly believe that a trophy for children based on ‘winning’ at the age of 9 or 10 is more important than having fun and actually developing the skills needed to play the sport well, then clearly they will not support LTPD.”
Of course, this position is not without its detractors, and several individuals in the media have taken a contrary view of OSA’s approach to competition restructuring, notably Anthony Furey at the Toronto Sun, Don Cherry on his FAN590 radio program, and Corey Smith at the Niagara Falls Review. One of their chief arguments is that removing the emphasis on winning and losing shelters kids from the realities of the world.
A new approach to competition is needed
Yet in almost every case these detractors ignore fundamental reasons why a new approach is needed. As professional soccer player-turned-broadcaster Jason de Vos points out in his TSN blog, having a competition structure that is age-appropriate and set up to encourage skill development is actually of paramount importance to the long term development model.
Simply put, U12 (under 12) soccer should focus on developing the core skills of the game. (It’s also important to point out here that kids keep score themselves when they play, regardless of formal structure. But they don’t get nearly as invested in the outcome at that age.)
The problem with league standings is that they incentivize winning at all costs. When standings are used, coaches will generally feel pressured to win at all costs (or feel they want to win at all costs), and this approach tends to throw player development out the window. A coach’s first inclination will be to play his bigger and/or better players. His smaller and/or less-skilled athletes will get less playing time, and they won’t progress in their skill development.
Given that kids grow and develop at different rates, this is a foolish oversight to ignore their skill development. There is a good chance the small kids will one day become the big kids with equal or better athleticism, so there needs to be assurance that they will actually learn skills.
Kids are not little adults
As a parent, it’s crucially important to remember that scores and standings are far from being the most significant measurement of your child’s “success”. The adult competition format in soccer, which typically involves promotion and relegation, is too pressurized for a child-centred learning environment. It penalizes young kids for making mistakes that are actually necessary to their learning. As well, enjoyment of the sport for its own sake is replaced with a sense of dread, as children start to worry that any mistake could potentially lead to a lost game and a lower position in the league standings.
As the Canada Soccer website points out, the absence of a trophy or league title does not diminish kids’ desire to compete below the U12 level. However, the elimination of standings does diminish the incentive for coaches to play to “win the league” because they are chasing a trophy and a league title at the end of the season. It also reduces the pressure coming from parents to see their child win, perform, and avoid mistakes at all costs.
Below are several items from the media that discuss the benefits of the soccer LTPD model:
- Alex Chiet on CTV’s Canada AM discussing LTPD implementation
- Pro-LTPD article in the Toronto Star
- CTA to get the message across
- “No score keeping? No problem” (Windsor Star)
- “Youth soccer to focus on skill development” (Chatham Daily News)
Kids just want to have fun
If you’d like to learn more about the Long Term Athlete Development model, the Canadian Sport for Life website is a great resource.
You’ll also find three articles here at Active for Life that have touched on several of the central issues in this debate. If you missed them, they’re worth checking out:
- Your attitude can help or hinder your kids’ enjoyment of sport and activity
- Kids’ soccer: Allow mistakes and forget about winning
- Top 5 reasons kids play sports
Just remember that primary and elementary school age kids need to have fun, feel comfortable making mistakes, and develop their core skills sets before worrying about the pressures of competition framed by season-long league standings. The match environment is competition enough at these ages.
The bottom line is, standings are for adults, not children.