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Youth soccer association on the right track

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The Manitoba Youth Soccer Association has announced a task force that will be struck to examine the program's links to the Long Term Athlete Development Model.

This review includes a discussion about whether or not scores and statistics should be kept for participants who are 12 years old and younger. The interest in this story has sparked a debate about youth sport participation and what we value in terms of youth sport.

As a researcher in the field of youth sport development, I have found this debate interesting.

As a former high-performance athlete, I competed at a young age and was a strong proponent of competition and early specialization.

As I began to pursue my doctoral work, I became aware of the literature in youth sport and struggled with the ideas of play and how that looks in elite sport settings.

This question is still on my mind and I continue to pursue a research line examining positive youth development in sport and various aspects of youth sport participation. What I have discovered through the literature, however, is a fact that cannot be ignored: Children and youth are motivated to participate in sport primarily for fun and enjoyment.

In fact, research over many years investigating why children and youth participate in organized sport list the following in order of importance: fun, learning new skills, being with friends and the challenge and excitement of competition. Winning is lower down on the list.

So, challenge and the excitement of competition are important, but what does that look like in youth sport? Does it only come down to keeping scores and stats? We -- researchers, program administrators, parents, coaches -- really need to redefine winning. There are different ways to win and still encourage competition.

I think about kids playing video games and although there is a social component to some games, many games are individually based -- kids are just trying to beat their own score. This may be a reason why children and youth enjoy video games. Why can't we extend this model to soccer? This is a competition with the self instead of focusing outward and this may help to build intrinsic motivation and increase persistence.

Isn't that what we want for kids? Intrinsically motivated individuals who persist and work to improve themselves? Sport can help to teach them that lesson instead of only teaching about one aspect of competition.

Research points to the fact that one-third of youth drop out of organized sport by the age of 13. Changing our policies about sport participation may go a long way to curb that trend.

As we know, most children and youth will not go on to compete at elite levels of performance. The ones who do will excel whether or not scores are kept.

Everyone has the opportunity to gain competence in sport skills, confidence in their ability and the chance to pursue lifelong sport participation.

The change is worth it if children are going to have a better shot at a positive experience in sport. Isn't that what we all want ultimately?

We must try different strategies for sport and this is a first step. Well done, MYSA.

Leisha Strachan is an assistant professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba.

The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini-bio to thelearningcurve@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 19, 2011 H12

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