A controversy sparked by the decision of the Ontario Soccer Association (OSA) to do away with keeping scores and team standings for competitive players under age 12 (U-12) connects in intriguing ways with concerns explored in my recent book, Fields of Play: An Ethnography of Children’s Sport. Dispensing with scorekeeping and league tables at this level is part of an overall Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) initiative to enhance the enjoyment and playing skills of younger athletes by de-emphasizing the significance of wins and losses. The OSA contends that fostering less-pressured competitive situations at this age level will increase playing opportunities and fun for all team members, thereby enabling coaches to focus upon teaching basic skills rather than worrying about league standings. In addition to encouraging recreational players to remain active within soccer for longer periods, it is expected that more talented players will be permitted to hone their skills before entering into more competitively structured levels at a slightly later age.
Despite positive feedback from some parents and clubs, introduction of the LTPD in general and the non-tracking of scores at the U-12 level in particular has also triggered criticisms anchored in sport practices and beliefs that extend far beyond soccer. This points to the central but complicated role of competition within children’s sports in Canada. The familiar Canadian ideal of “pond hockey”—which ostensibly features spontaneous, exuberant, and “free” play that is engaged in for its own sake—stands in stark opposition to the deadly serious competitive battles that end up being waged by child and youth teams on playing fields and rinks across this country. Many Canadian parents and local sport organizers have identified sports as invaluable means for socializing children. The lessons of teamwork, commitment to personal improvement, and the inescapable realities of competition—namely, that we can’t all be winners—are cited as essential components of what children need to know in order to be successful adults, whether or not they ever win an athletic scholarship or play sports at elite or professional levels.
But this is not a unanimous or even necessarily a majority view. Most parents and sport organizers are also acquainted with instances where the unbridled pursuit of the “almighty win” by one or another coach, parents, or group of players themselves has resulted in verbal abuse of young athletes, unequal playing opportunities, and ultimately high drop-out rates. If the standard against which coaches’ and parents’ competence as coaches and parents are likely to be assessed depend primarily upon the numbers of wins and losses registered on the fields of play, then the purposes of these competitive events have been overtaken by distinctly adult interests. But neither should the commitment of many young athletes to existing competitive structures be overlooked: sport has become an essential component of personal identity for boys and girls who come to define themselves in terms of the ribbons, cups, and awards that they have garnered by triumphing over opponents who are “losers.”
The complexities and conundrums of children’s sports reach beyond simplistic celebrations of young athletes or categorical criticisms of sport officials and parents. The reality is that sport is not a simple thing that automatically generates endless benefits and only the occasional problem or disagreement. What is interesting about the OSA’s initiative to reshape the competitive structure of soccer for children is that those leading the way do seem to have been prepared for the types of objections that have surfaced. As its officials have explained, the approach that it is now implementing follows the lead of countries that routinely produce world-class players. These countries do so by allowing highly promising and less talented players alike to learn to enjoy the game and master its basic skills to the best of their ability before making competitive matches a matter of record or consequence. What, indeed, would be jeopardized by adopting this approach?
Noel Dyck, Simon Fraser University