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Soccer's pitch good on paper

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The announcement by soccer officials in Manitoba that they are taking the competitive edge off the game for youngsters struck many people as incongruous -- forget moving the goalposts, they sneered, they might as well take them away. Can you imagine if they did that for hockey?

Start imagining, because all sports across Canada have agreed to change the way minor and recreational programs are run. Hockey will move at a slower pace than soccer -- there will be a longer learning curve allowed for parents, coaches and players -- but it is shooting for the same goal. The intent is to reduce competition for players up to age 12, to focus on skill development. More practices, fewer games. In a couple of years, Soccer Manitoba will stop posting game scores and rankings on league websites for the under-12 crowd.

Nationally, Sport Canada has rolled out its strategy to get and keep more kids in sports and recreation in the hopes of producing higher-skilled, as well as elite athletes, but also "athletes for life." Canada's growing obesity problem has triggered a retooling of privately/publicly funded sports programs, with the nod of governments. Kids up to the ages of 11 or 12 are in their prime to develop motor skills, strength, agility, balance and co-ordination. Leaning heavily on sport science and studying good practices elsewhere, Canadian sport organizations have concluded the emphasis on competition has come at the expense of the love of the game, has squandered the peak period for athletic skill development.

All good, on paper. Some children, to be sure, are turned off by competition but some are born competitors, drawing their drive from the thrill of a win. For decades, parents have watched children grow bored with the zeitgeist that everyone's a winner. Even when scoring is eliminated, kids know.

The risk in re-engineering what many people regard as a fundamentally natural element of sport is it may turn off as many youngsters as it is hopes to turn on.

Many youth sports need a better balance, with more emphasis on skills (practice, practice, practice) that can only be done by making it fun -- not as easy as it sounds -- which may be a tall order for volunteer coaches. Hockey has it right: It will be a steep learning curve requiring a lengthy education campaign for buy-in from generations of Canadians who worship at the altar of global hockey supremacy. Similarly, Soccer Manitoba may find its timeline too ambitious for the sea change in sport culture that must come.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2011 A10

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