This summer, a growing number of youth soccer teams in Ontario will be playing games without keeping track of goals scored, at least not officially.

 

This summer, a growing number of youth soccer teams in Ontario will be playing games without keeping track of goals scored, at least not officially. And next summer, no scores or standings will be kept for any 12-and-under teams playing in the Ontario Soccer Association.

Members of the Alberta Soccer Association are paying close attention as their own province considers a similar action, a growing trend among both Canadian and U.S. youth soccer leagues. "The Canadian Minor Soccer Association has what it calls the top 40 long-term player development goals that it would like to work on," explains Daryl Leinweber, executive director of the Calgary Minor Soccer Association, referencing an initiative created by Canadian Sport for Life and endorsed by the Canadian Soccer Association. "One of the recommendations is to take a look at scoring for leagues under 12."

RISING STAKES
Both proponents and opponents agree that youth sports just aren't what they were 10 years ago. Even childhood isn't what it was 10 years ago. "Everything is structured," says Leinweber. "Kids never have time or take the time to go to the park and kick a ball around with their friends."

Expectations are higher all around. Parents expect their children to work hard and excel, holding coaches responsible for their success - or failure. "In the case of some of the coaches, their livelihood is on the line based on the performance of 10-year-old children," says Sam Snow, coaching director at US Youth Soccer. "They project that stress onto the kids, and it's all about the score instead of helping the kids learn how to play the game."

US Youth Soccer has recommended a policy of no scoring or standings for its younger programs for years, believing that at such a young age, focus on scoring gets in the way of more important skills development. "We recommend it so that coaches, club administrators and parents of U10 players can allow the kids to play without too much stress on the outcome of the game," says Snow. "When kids aren't allowed to make mistakes as they try to implement new skills, that hinders their development."

Scientific research is lending greater credence to the effectiveness of such tactics as part of long-term player development - emphasis on long-term. "We have very successful engagement of kids under the age of 12," says Leinweber, noting that Canada's grassroots youth programs are the envy of countries throughout South America and Europe, an envy that does not translate to Canada's national team. "What are we doing after that? How are we keeping them in the game?"

A greater focus on the outcome of games has left essential skill development along the wayside, as coaches focus strictly on the tactics that lead to a win, not teaching and developing new skills that foster a continued interest in the game.

"The majority of coaches understand and would actually be happy to be able to focus on ball skills, good nutrition and good physical fitness for the age group," says Snow, hitting on the other important development factors lost when too much focus is placed on winning games. "A big piece of it for us - and frankly any team sport - is to realize that these team sports are a long-term developmental process. If parents understand the timeline involved to develop in a team sport a little bit better, then things like not overemphasizing the score or not having league standings make more sense."

 

ALTERNATIVE STRATEGIES
The goal is the same all around: "What we want to look at is how to allow kids to take a chance in soccer and become creative," says Leinweber, but he doesn't think a policy of no scoring or standings is the way to go about it.

"Games are created to try the skills that we learn," he explains. "You still need to have competitive games to know how well you've developed that skill. Winning and losing also tells you how well you're doing."

As such, the youth soccer association does something a little different in Calgary. "Within our 10-year-olds league, we have done away with posting the actual scores," says Leinweber. "We post the scores with a one-goal differential and we keep standings. The standings have to do with the ability to manage the league for more than 200 teams."

The standings help ensure that teams are matched relatively evenly in terms of skill, giving each the chance to really test themselves. "If we had no standings or scores, they could be playing a team at the bottom and winning by 25 or 30 goals," says Leinweber, adding that such lopsided matchups are hard to ignore, even without a scoreboard. "Nobody has fun being beaten 25 or 30 to nothing."

PUBLIC EDUCATION
The idea of no-score sports contests isn't anything new, but implementation has been hindered by misconceptions. "We're not saying winning is a bad thing," says Snow. "That's categorically wrong. We're not saying go out and not care about trying your best. It's a balancing act. How do you teach the kids to give their very best and try to win games while understanding that even when they do their best, they're not always going to win?"

It's a hard thing for some people to understand, and Leinweber thinks a province-wide policy is not the way to help people do so. "You don't mandate something," he says. "You have to have a dialogue. You just can't say, 'We're going to do this,' without explaining how or why or what the end result is going to be."

A survey conducted of 1,500 members of the Calgary Minor Soccer Association showed that the majority do not support the Ontario mandate. "That tells me that we have a lot of education to do if we're expecting to change," says Leinweber.

"We can do that by providing more resources to our clubs and coaches to help them," he says. But it has to start at the local level with those directly involved. "This isn't something a major organization can do. The Canadian Soccer Association can't do that. The Alberta Soccer Association can't do that. All three levels have to work together and get our organizations and clubs to buy into it."

Emily Attwood is Managing Editor of Athletic Business.