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Geoff Johnson: Putting the fun back into children’s sports

We all remember it well, that nervousness about being picked as you and all the other kids lined up for the lunchtime game.

We all remember it well, that nervousness about being picked as you and all the other kids lined up for the lunchtime game. Everybody knew who the really good players were and that they’d be picked first, but you just didn’t want the ignominy of being picked last.

Once that was over, it was game on. The idea was to get as much happening before the bell sounded and it was back to class.

Who won? Who lost? Who knew? Who cared?

Then there were community sports on Saturday. Again, who won and who lost seemed more important to the adults than it was to you. The value was in those small personal successes, not necessarily the final game result.

Sports appear to be more popular, but elite-level participation rates across younger age groups continue to decline. A new study prepared by Community Foundations of Canada indicates that some rethinking about kids and sports is overdue.

The study, entitled Sport and Belonging, found that nearly three-quarters of Canadians are saying that children’s sports have become too focused on winning at the exclusion of fun and fair play.

Participation peaks between the ages of 10 and 13, then declines dramatically.

“Unfortunately, when you put an overemphasis on competition, individual skill development regresses, and that’s what’s happened in our game for so long,” said Alex Chiet, the chief technical officer for the Ontario Soccer Association.

Many junior soccer leagues across Ontario will stop keeping score and tabulating standings this season in an attempt to shift the focus away from winning and toward skills development.

Some leagues and age groups started last season; others will adopt the approach this year. By 2014, it will be mandatory across Ontario for all competitive players under 12.

That change is not winning favour with some parents, even community coaches who have grown up in North America’s hypercompetitive, win-at-all-costs sports culture.

“That’s the biggest challenge we face,” said John Hyland, head coach at the North Toronto Soccer Club. “Changing the mentality, the culture.”

Sports organizers like Hyland recognize that to bring kids back to sport, they will need to feel they belong when they play. The most significant factors in sport dropout rates, he says, include lack of fun, stress, too much competition and negative coach or parental behaviour. It’s time, say the experts, to revisit the values of sport.

Still, many parents are skeptical, saying that organizers are making a mistake when any semblance of competition is removed. Some parents consider sports as a metaphor for the “real world” where there are “winners and losers.”

Others, like John O’Sullivan, founder of the Changing the Game Project, are adamant.

“We are trying to select out the ‘talent’ far, far too young. Just because a kid at age 10 isn’t on a scholarship track doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a place for them in the game,” says O’Sullivan, who was most recently Central Oregon Regional Training Center director for the Portland Timbers, a major league soccer team.

Advocating a more measured approach for younger children is also the mission of Canadian Sport for Life, a movement that promotes quality sport and physical activity.

The purpose of the Sport for Life movement is to improve the quality of sport and physical activity in Canada. Sport for Life links sport, education, recreation and health, and aligns community, provincial and national programming.

Long-Term Athlete Development is an SFL seven-stage training, competition and recovery pathway from infancy through all phases of adulthood. It represents a paradigm shift in the way Canadians lead and deliver sport and physical activity.

There are seven stages within the basic LTAD model: Stages 1, 2 and 3 (ages 0-12) develop “physical literacy” before puberty so children have the basic skills to be active for life.

Stages 4, 5 and 6 (ages 12-19) provide training guidance for those who want to specialize in one sport, and Stage 7 is about staying active for life.

Michael Jordan, possibly the most competitive player ever to grace a basketball court, once failed to make his high-school team. His advice at the end of a stellar NBA career was “just play, have fun, enjoy the game.”

Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.