In the last 10 years, the structure of youth soccer competitions in Ontario and Canada has undergone some significant changes. The advent of Soccer Academy Alliance Canada (SAAC) in 2006, the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL) in 2013, as well as changes to the competition structures of various leagues from Under-8 to Under-18 across Ontario, have all provided a platform for the implementation of Long Term Player Development (LTPD), which is the strategic plan of the Ontario and Canadian Soccer Associations. One basic tenet of Long Term Player Development, which has been embraced by SAAC, the OPDL, and other competitive soccer leagues across Ontario, is the use of age-appropriate competitions. Several rule changes have been instituted in the various different competitive leagues in this province to make them more age-appropriate, including:
- Switching to smaller-sided games, ranging from 3 vs. 3 to 9 vs. 9, for ages ranging from Under-8 to Under-12
- Smaller-sized playing fields (used in accordance with the number of players on the field)
- Elimination of promotion / relegation, league standings and, in some cases, even scores from games and tournaments
Of course, there are very legitimate science-/evidence-based reasons that the Long Term Player Development plan has recommended these changes. For example, Scott and Norman (1978) were some of the first people to conduct research into skilled performance and motor learning, and their findings indicated that children learn best through variability of practice and competition. Scanlan and Lewthwaite (1986) found that children who participate in sporting environments where they are pressured to win by a parent or coach are far less likely to enjoy their sport, and are subsequently far more likely to want to quit their sport during high school. More recently, Ann-Cyr et. al. (2014) determined that children and adults learn best when they are allowed to make mistakes and come to an answer on their own, rather than being directed by a coach or teacher.
From a coaching perspective, it is very easy to see the practical applications of this evidence. In youth soccer, the pressure to win games works completely against player development, as there is simply no way for a coach to allow players to make mistakes during competitions when they will be punished (either through dropping points and position in league standings and/or through relegation to a lower-level league) for losing those competitions. Thus, the rationale for instituting age-appropriate competitions which include elimination of promotion/relegation, standings, and scores is that, by shifting emphasis away from results, coaches and players can focus on what really matters – the development, improvement, and maximizing of individual technical soccer skills, and tactical knowledge of the game.
Over the course of my career, I have worked with coaches and parents at all competitive levels in the game, including the higher levels (Ontario Provincial teams, Canadian National teams, and Toronto FC Academy teams) as well as the lower amateur club and academy levels. During this time, I have found that, out of all of the aforementioned changes to competition structure in youth soccer, it is the elimination of league standings and scoring from games that has seemed to be the least popular amongst many coaches and players in Ontario. Many times, when I ask players, parents, or coaches competing in the new leagues which have eliminated standings (and in some cases scores) like SAAC or the OPDL how their last game went, the first answer I hear is “we won” or “we lost.” Often, these same people will comment on the quality of another club’s or academy’s developmental program by saying things like “their program is no good, we beat them 5-0 last time we played them.”
I cannot help but wonder why, even in environments like SAAC and the OPDL (which have clearly indicated that player development is their primary focus – the words “player development” are literally part of the acronym “OPDL”) so many people are still competing for results and measuring the success or failure of their programs based on these results. Unfortunately, what these people fail to realize is that the results of any youth soccer competition really do not matter, because they will have no impact on the technical, tactical, physical, or psychological development of the players who are competing. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I can say from my own experience that the coaches in the various different higher-level adult soccer environments in which most aspiring youth soccer players wish to play (Canadian and U.S. college/university teams, Canadian and international professional clubs, and the Canadian National teams) do not care about the results of youth soccer competitions either. What these coaches do care about is technical skill, tactical knowledge, physical fitness, attitude and work ethic, all of which are qualities that are best developed without pressure to get results and win games.
Ultimately, the solution to the problem of the unpopularity of age-appropriate competitions with reduced emphasis on scores and standings in youth soccer lies in coach, parent, and player education. Coaches should ensure that they follow the guidelines of Long Term Player Development and, in addition, should do their own research into how their approach and attitude towards competition affects the development of their players. It would be great if parents, too, were able to take part in basic coach education programs and courses which emphasize the positive impact that age-appropriate competitions can have on their children’s soccer development. Finally, players should be encouraged both by their coaches and their parents to find other ways to measure their performance in competitions, rather than simply by looking at the score line. If we truly want to improve and maximize player development in Canadian soccer, then we need to stop competing for results.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.