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Imagine Winnipeg soccer fields on which kids 12 and under don't play for trophies -- they develop skills and fitness and creativity while having fun.
It's the way most of the world operates, and it's the way soccer could be played here by 2014, says Hector Vergara, executive director of the Manitoba Soccer Association.
Sport Canada has told the Canadian Soccer Association and every other organized sport that they have three years to implement the goals of the Long Term Athlete Development program, or face consequences to their funding, Vergara said.
"There's going to be a need for a huge education component," Vergara said Tuesday. "We're ingrained with scores and standings and trophies.
"The mandate is clear -- Sport Canada is concerned about the obesity of children and how it's affecting the wellness of the country," said Vergara.
The changes could include fewer players on smaller fields, more practices than games, training coaches to help younger players develop skills and creativity, and seasons without standings or playoffs or championships.
"I would recommend that would happen by 2014," Vergara said. "Our coaches are too focused at too young an age at winning trophies.
"We need a buy-in from coaches, players, and parents, and the buy-in is going to come through education."
Teams could hold competitive tournaments throughout the season, he said, acknowledging that even if there are no standings, kids will keep score in their heads during games played for fun.
Vergara said that the Winnipeg Youth Soccer Association has struck a task force whose job it is to recommend how to implement those changes over the next three years.
Vergara said WYSA is hearing stories about nine-year-old children kept on the bench because coaches want to win trophies.
Some areas of Winnipeg start keeping score at age eight, Vergara pointed out.
Winnipeg children aged nine to 12 already play on a smaller field, with nine on each team, and smaller goals. But that's not universal across Canada, and even here we could end up with maybe eight-on-eight, he said.
A decade ago, kids were still tiered into recreational and higher competitive levels at 13, but now competitive teams start at age 10.
"That's part of the big picture," Vergara said. "There may be some tiering needed, but it would have to be done carefully."
Provincial teams don't start until age 13, and competitive teams don't go to nationals until age 14, he said.
"What is the best way to train?" asked Vergara. Around the world, kids play pickup soccer each day on the street or a patch of open ground, and develop flare and creativity -- but not here.
Parents need to realize that their child may play 30 minutes of a 60-minute match, and maybe touch the ball 10 times, Vergara said -- in a 90-minute practice, they'd touch the ball hundreds of times and be far more active.
And artificial turf could be part of the package. It can take until mid-May for grass fields to dry out enough to be used without damage, and rain can put a grass field out of commission for days. With synthetic grass, Vergara said, we could be playing outdoor soccer from sometime in April until well into November. That's what happens in Alberta, where two or three inches of snow can be shovelled off easily.
The Waverley Soccer Complex has gone from 280 games a year to 1,250 since installing synthetic grass on two of the three fields, he said. There will be two artificial turf fields built at University of Manitoba by July as part of the new stadium, and several soccer districts are talking about installing artificial turf.
University of Manitoba professor Leisha Strachan said an approach dubbed the Developmental Model of Sports Participation is gaining traction in parts of the United Kingdom, but isn't yet widespread in Canada.
The model focuses on building competence and motivation, and not necessarily in a competitive setting, said Strachan, a kinesiology and recreation management professor.
"I think there's a shift in terms of the realization that if we want kids to participate in sports and develop to an expert level, they need to develop enjoyment, and they need to develop competence," said Strachan, who specializes in child development in sport.
The model focuses on the ages of six to 12 as the "sampling years" when kids are involved in a lot of different sports. And it involves a push for "deliberate play:" things like a pick-up game of street hockey, which is structured but not so competitive. Kids are more willing to take risks and be creative in that sort of context, she said.
- with files from Lindsey Wiebe
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