Sunday, 17 February 2013

Kids in Sports

Why is it that they have taken something so simple (soccer) and made it so difficult for the kids and parents to enjoy?  This thought crossed my mind while chatting with my fellow assistant coach at basketball yesterday.  We had only a handful of girls for the last scheduled basketball game of the year as the rest of the team members were off at a small tournament for soccer.  These girls are just 10 or 11 years old and they are already participating full-time in soccer activities that seem to leave little time for anything else.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the whole idea of children being involved in sports mostly because I get to see on a daily basis just how much fun Asher at 2 years old has whenever a ball, puck or any sports equipment is present.  I think it's really cool and I look forward to helping him get involved in all sorts of different things, but the cost and the viability of it all hadn't dawned on me until recently.  The better your child becomes at a sport, the more costly it gets.  I would love to see Jasmine and Asher excel at sports, but at what cost?  I feel like I do a reasonable job with Jasmine when it comes to not pushing her, because I want her to enjoy her involvement and not feel like she has to please me.  I didn't coax her into playing sports that I liked, but rather I steered her towards what I thought were affordable options that she would be interested in.  Sheila and I enrolled her in the Girl Guide program as well to provide a different type of leisure activity, again, at an affordable price.  As it turns out, even affordable has it's costs.  Between soccer, basketball, Girl Guides, various activities at school, and the horse riding lessons I spoiled her with last summer, I have collected over $500 worth of reciepts.  This doesn't include the various equipment she needs to participate be it her Guide uniform, her kicks for b-ball, her soccer cleats and her other equipment that she needed for having fun with dad in the yard.  This includes her bicycle, her softball bat and glove, her hockey stick and helmet and so on.  When it comes right down to it, leading your children towards a sedentary lifestyle can be "cheaper" if one was to measure the cost in merely dollars spent.

Now, what got me started on this topic was my conversation with my fellow coach and the absurdly complex system that the Prince George Youth Soccer Association has implemented called "Future Stars".  I have no problem with the idea that children at the age of 9 or 10 are referred to as "Future Stars" as that sounds like fun and could leave the kids dreaming big and setting their goals high.  The system itself is flawed immensely and for numerous reasons.  Last year, Jasmine began her first year in the new program.  She played as a 9 year old in the 9 and 10 year old division.  The division was tiered so there was a green division and a white division and based on who knows what standards and evaluations the girls were lumped into one or the other.  Keep in mind, I coached the year before and had provided evaluations for my girls to the league.  Jasmine was placed on a team in the second tier along with 3 first time players, but at the same time the team was probably made up of half 9 year old and half 10 year olds.  You would think that the second year players would be more likely to play in the top tier.  Both divisions played twice a week and the league also provided additional coaching sessions on a 3rd night of the week that was the beginning of the "Future Stars" program.  This division does not have a special team to represent the "Future Stars" that starts in the next division of 11 and 12 year olds.  To start the year, the league had the brilliant idea of having a paid coach show up prior to each game and lead both teams in a warmup.  Additionally, the would provide instruction throughout the game to help improve their skills.  Well, if any of you know children in this age group you would know that attention spans are not that long.  The professional coaches spoke to the kids as if they were adults with nearly everything they said flying over their heads.  I was still preaching that passes were made with the side of our foot, and that both feet stayed down on a throw in.  The professionals wanted to work on things like "shape" and "ball movement", essentially coaching them as if they had played for years and years and were mature enough to listen to intensive instruction.  I had to remind the professionals that 3 of the 11 girls had never played in their life, and 1 girl looked like she had never seen a soccer ball before.  When these same coaches stopped the games repeatedly to preach more concepts that were entirely lost on the girls, boredom insued.  They were ruining the fun aspect of the game and my co-coach and I were pained while watching.  Exercise and fun really should have been the only points of emphasis.  Luckily, the coaches were so busy with whatever it was they were busy with and they just stopped appearing at the games.  Likely, it was due to the fact that this was tier 2 not the big leagues and it may have had something to do with loud complaining that was done by nearly every coach I spoke to.  So, the PGYSA is understanding and capable of adaptation, right?

Well, after hearing what I heard this weekend I am not so sure.  Jasmine will once again be in the 9-10 division this year be it tier 1 or 2 and I will once again be her coach.  Her basketball teammates all know each other from soccer and in fact 9 of the 11 players on the basketball team had been soccer teammates at one time or another.  While Jasmine's sport activity in the winter consists of 1 basketball session a week, a trip or two to the pool and whatever else her dad has the energy for during the week, the other girls had 3 soccer sessions a week, during the winter!  They dilligently attended practice had scrimmages and what have you right from the end of the outdoor season through to the spring.  I had been hearing for the last few weeks about this tournament that was coming up, mostly from one child with an attitude and superiority complex that makes me sick, but I didn't think it was too big of a deal.  Jasmine never asked me about why she wasn't playing soccer in the winter, and frankly she seems quite content with her current level of sport playing time.  She prefers sleepovers with friends, goofing around with mom and dad and her brother, watching movies, reading and doing artwork rather then eating, sleeping and breathing soccer.  Knowing what it costs to play the short outdoor soccer season, I knew that this indoor program was likely out of our budget anyway so I was happy to hear nothing about it from Jasmine.  When we arrived at basketball yesterday I was surprised to see only 5 girls total, but then heard about the soccer games.  Interestingly, 2 of the 8 girls who had been practicing all winter with this team were at basketball (my co-coach's twin daughters).  I then hear that for the tournament a team was selected out of a larger group of girls and her children had been left out.  They had practiced all winter, just as hard and as often as the rest of the group, and they were excluded from travelling out of town for this tournament.  At age 10, they were obviously hurt.  The way the program operates, the girls are expected to be back at practice later this week with the same girls and will likely get to hear all about the fun that they were excluded from.  What makes the whole system even more disgusting is that it continues into the outdoor season.  Her girls have to decide between playing "Future Stars" and potentially being left out of more chances to play out of town with a team, or to play in the house league either tier 1 or 2.  If they chose "Future Stars" but aren't good enough to make the travelling roster they may go all year without playing an actual game.  If they chose house league, they will be excluded completely from competing for a spot on what is essentially the city all-star team.  They will also be denied high level coaching as that will be reserved for those in the "program" who have ponied up the additional dollars to take part. 

To add to how silly it is to begin grouping and excluding starting at the age of 9 was that my tier 2 team last year was very competitive.  We won lots of games, and individually a few of the players were very good compared to their peers.  I observed a few tier 1 games, and interestingly enough, a few of my players would have been top players in the first division.  I also saw a couple of the girls I had previously coached and had classed as weaker players struggling in the first division.  Obviously, mistakes had been made by the evaluators.  Also, it was amazing how much a 9 year old girl could improve in a handful of months.  The point being, it was way too early to start categorizing them as soccer players.  I had a blast coaching last year even though we were part of the division that PGYSA has given up on.  Essentially, tiering at this age is a sick way of getting the weaker players out of the way so the talent can be developed.  Luckily, the girls didn't even know they had been tiered, and as I had said the 2 divisions were likely pretty even anyway. 

While I got a little carried away with the structure of the PGYSA, another key to my concerns is the costs associated with playing a game that is fundamentally so simple that it can be played with no equipment at all.  Many of the poorest countries in the world are competitive in international soccer for that reason.  It's one of the things that make the sport so compelling to follow.  The idea that Honduras or Jamaica, or the Ivory Coast can qualify for a best on best tournament speaks to how inclusive the game of soccer really is.  Sadly, Canada has a terrible track record at the highest levels of soccer, and I believe that over complicated programs at the grassroots level will only serve to continue this mediocrity.  The league fees for Jasmine's league are $160 this year, up from $150 last year.  This will be her 6th season of soccer and every season I have paid more for her to play then I did the year before.  There will be no additional fees because for this year there is no option of playing on a fancy "future stars" team.  For the division higher the fees are the same, but if you are involved in "future stars" you will play $240.  Remember, that being in the program does not guarantee you a spot on the team, and it's possible that some of these girls will not play a single game all year.  I still can't comprehend the ridiculousness of it all.  How do we expect these girls to have fun and enjoy themselves?  By practicing themselves to death 3 times a week?  I'm quite glad that Jasmine is competitive, has fun while playing, gets the gratification of a few goals every season and has no desire to obsessively practice all hours of the day.  She appreciates soccer for what it is a fun and social activity with a moderate level of competitiveness.  I'm hopeful that I won't have to explain to her that it's too expensive for mom and dad to have her involved in all-star teams and travelling squads.  That doesn't sound like fun, and it's something I don't think anyone wants to do.  I'm realistic though, I know there are thousands of families in Prince George that have that problem, the children want to play, but beauracracy has gotten in the way.  So many paid employees adding to the overhead costs, then these employees create these complicated structures that crush hopes and dreams of children who are too young to realize what is being done.  And for what?  So that Prince George may produce a player or two per year who manages to recieve a division 3 American College scholarship to some school in Arkansas. 

To highlight the absurdity of the soccer organization, I would like to contrast it to the PGMBA, youth basketball sponsored by Steve Nash.  This was the scond year of involvement for me, Jasmine had a great time last year and she was ready to play again.  We played once a week from 11-1 on Saturdays.  One hour of warmup and practice time, followed by a game.  The girls get great coaching from volunteers, the coach for Jasmine's team is a former College level player who's daughter is on the team.  He does a great job, lots of patience and plenty of different drills that are geared to their skill level.  The girls never complain about practicing, and generally try their best during the games.  The best part?  We don't keep score!  Not only are these teams all inclusive with no tiering or all-star status, but no one worries about who is winning or losing.  Frankly, the girls have had a tough go.  The other teams all seem to have at least 1 superstar player and if we were keeping score we would like have a losing record.  None of them get down the dumps during the games because they don't dwell on the results.  Also, it's interesting to note that each week it seems someone different is the "best player".  These girls are only 9 and 10 years old.  They aren't always in the zone and that just shows how silly tiering and separating them really is.  One week Jasmine might be the best player on the court, the next week she might struggle to keep up.  It really should be fun while the competitve aspect gradually gets introduced as they get older and more experienced.

To conclude this long winded diatribe, I must also point out that we have been inundated with reminders through the press that as a whole North Americans are getting more and more unhealthy.  We are constantly hearing about the soaring obesity and diabetes rates.  The provincial government of B.C. went ahead and banned all unhealthy foods from the schools a few years ago.  Around the same time, they made it so that Physical Education was no longer required through to grade 12, and significant cuts to gym time were made at the Elementary level.  Jasmine only goes to the gym a couple times a week, it seems inadequate particularly if that is the only activity a child participates in.  Shitty, unhealthy food is still out there, so banning it from schools isn't going to have much impact.  Unfortunately, the healthier a food product is, the more expensive it usually is.  It would be nice if the government did something to encourage healthy eating rather then taking away all the junk food.  The federal government did implement a tax credit program for children's physical activities, but for those with little to no disposable income seeing a 20% return on their registration fees a year later will be of little comfort.  Fun and fitness, it seems so simple, but unfortunately nothing in life is as easy as it could be.

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