Club Nationals – Time to reconsider U14s?

The ultimate goal for most club teams in Canada is of course getting to and winning club nationals. Playing for a national title in any sport really is not a unique event to just our country, but its importance seems to be, at least at our youngest ages. Now, I must get this out early, that I do support a national club championship for our older age groups, U16 and U18s, and for the majority of our players. I believe that getting to a national championship is a fantastic achievement and will create wonderful memories. For many players, this experience will top off many years of training sessions and hard work and for that, it should be celebrated. There will also be some fantastic coaches representing their teams at nationals, coaches who had success come as a by-product of good training and a belief in player development over winning.

Now that I have hopefully appeased even the worst of our country’s telephone coaches with an acknowledgement of my support of club nationals, I do have my opinions of where this competition fails player development at our youngest ages. I have argued for many years that having U14s play for a national championship is a hindrance to player development. This age in particular is one where the biological stages of development in players are all over the map. I recently went to watch a game between two local club teams playing one final game, with the winner getting the last provincial spot. One team was small but very technical and the other was big, strong, and physical. The larger team intimidated at every opportunity, and this for me is what enabled them to come out on top. This provincial berth was won based on size and physicality, and this leads me into the issues surrounding U14 club nationals. I should add that I am not suggesting that the physical team was not good technically, as they certainly have good players, and ones that I will continue to monitor for our Academy, but am suggesting that the physical advantage played an important part of the result.

For any soccer person out there, it wouldn’t be anything new for me to say that a team made up of the most physically or biologically developed players will more often than not, be able to win games at the U12 and U14 age groups. Coaches who value winning more than anything else will select their U14 club team based on size first, and these will be the teams that will progress into provincial and national competitions. Yes, there will be exceptions from the clubs whose development is so good, it will overcome the physicality of these other programs, but I will stick with the majority for the sake of my argument.

My other issue with having U14s involved in club nationals is the fact that this competition becomes the recruiting agent of telephone coaches. Perhaps this is no longer an issue in provinces with high performance leagues, but certainly in my province, this is a big problem. Currently, in our city, you can look at most age groups and there will be one or two teams that have run away with the league table. Looking at the results in games provides an even more grim look into the disparity between teams. It is the promise of making it to provincials and nationals that gives power to the telephone coach. This is the coach that is equally comfortable at selling his team’s ability to get your child to nationals as he would be in selling a broken down used car to an unsuspecting family. The power that this competition has to influence parents to completely ignore player development is immense, and it also gives rise for some clubs to pad the pockets of unlicensed technical staff coaches. In many cases, parents confuse winning as an indication of development.

So what if we removed the U14 age group from club nationals, what then? Well, for starters, I would like to believe that this might finally start to create a change in the mentality of parents. If the first chance of competing at nationals doesn’t happen until the U16 Tier I age group, then what happens to the telephone coaches? What angle does a coach who can only selling winning take when trying to poach other programs’ best players? Currently, the telephone coach holds an incredible amount of power in a soccer culture that mistakes winning as development. When that selling feature is taken away, I am wishfully thinking that this may be the opportunity for the real development coaches to step in. If an opportunity to get to nationals is years away, perhaps the focus shifts from winning to development, at least this is my glass-half-full look at soccer’s growth in Canada. Parents will now perhaps take a stronger look at how their child is developing since the addiction of winning to get to national has been removed. Instead of moving their sons or daughters to another program for a better chance to get to nationals, perhaps they now move their children because they see another club as doing a better job of actually developing players. From the U12 all the way up to the U16 Tier I age group, the importance of winning to get to nationals is completely removed, and along with that, a four-year period of development has been introduced. Coaches who believe in the LTPD, who believe in player development, and who want to move their players into higher levels will be able to step to the forefront of our sport and take a lead into the changing of a winning mentality to a development one!

My final comment is on an earlier point I made where I said that I was in favour of U16 and U18 club nationals for the majority of our players. There is a small minority where I do not see the value of this competition, and this is for those elite players that have moved into one of the five professional academies in Canada. At about the same time that the Canadian Soccer Association did away with the provincial all-star competition, they released the new Canadian Player Pathway to our national teams. This document, which based on the amount of resistance I still get with our U16 program, is one that has apparently not been seen by enough people making decisions across this country that affect our game. For the elite players in professional academies, where their development path has been carefully planned out and the word winning is not factored into any of the development planning decisions, the need to compete in a national club competition is not required. The measure of success for the coaches in any of the five professional academies is not in winning games or tournaments for the organization to brag about, it is in the number of players they have promoted to the first team, it is in the number of young players that have been picked up to compete in our national youth team projects, and in the number of players that perhaps aren’t ready at 18 to sign a pro contract but who then make the move into post-secondary programs. This new player pathway puts us more in line with the majority of the soccer-playing world and entrusts the development of our best players with those who have the most vested interests in seeing stronger technical and tactical players move into the professional ranks.

So again, I do believe there is a place for a national club competition in our sport, just like I see the importance of all clubs across our country who give players their technical start to our game, and grow the passion of playing in our children. What I don’t support however, is the winning driven mentality that getting to nationals creates in our most important age groups for player development. As long as winning is the driving force in our U14 age group, we will never really give our youngest elite players the best opportunities to develop.

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