We (respectfully) disagree.

The 2018 Winter Olympics came and went with the tiny country of Norway dominating 180208124835-winter-olympics-2018-medals-exlarge-169the field. According to the head of their Olympic team, much of their success can be attributed to their approach to youth sport:

In Norway, children are encouraged to join local sport clubs to help with their social development but there are strict rules, which prevent anyone from keeping score — no one can be ranked first to last until they turn 13. “We want them to be in sports because they want to be,” Tore Øvrebø, head of the Norwegian team, explained to CNN Sport. The focus is on other aspects, he says, not the competitive side. “Instead (of winning) they want to have fun and they want to develop not only as athletes but as social people.”

“Our vision is sport for all. Before you are 12 you should have fun with sport. So we don’t focus on who the winner is before then. Instead we are very focused on getting children into our 11,000 local sports clubs.” Tom Tvedt, President of Norway’s Olympic Committee. (The Guardian)

winning hoops tweetIn direct contrast to the Norwegian approach, a few months ago, my colleague Lauren Sulz tweeted out the following query to the Twitterverse…

We chatted a bit about the Winning Hoops post and decided that we needed to respond to the claims made in Why cuts are good for kids. Given the nature of our research on school sport and our own personal experiences as athletes and coaches, we’d like to respond – point for point. Game on.

The ‘about’ section on the Winning Hoops site states:

“Winning Hoops is devoted to helping coaches and athletic administrators at all levels of play develop successful basketball programs. It focuses on all aspects of the sport, including the latest headlines, strength & conditioning, facilities, program development, X’s and O’s and more. Our goal is educate athletic program leaders, providing them with the tools and knowledge necessary to build powerful basketball programs and develop successful student-athletes.”

Look at the words that we bolded. If these are indicative of the site’s goals, then maybe it’s time for a name change. Not that there’s anything wrong with winning (we all like to win!) but the title implies that winning is the FIRST priority. Athlete development should always come first in sport – especially youth sport. Perhaps the post itself was meant for only high school athletes, however, Winning Hoops is clearly for all levels. A coach, at any level, that follows the site could be influenced by such a post. Thus far, our research clearly shows that cutting is detrimental at least up to ages 15-16 (more work to come on that!). As well, a look at Long Term Athlete Development in the spirit of ‘Kaizen’ (continuous improvement) supports the foundational nature of development right up into the ‘Train to Win’ phase. Arguably, the only place where a program should be more concerned about winning than development is when athletes are paid to play.

The article states:

“The majority of us were brought into coaching with the mindset that the opportunity to be part of a team is beneficial and rewarding for everyone involved. Sports are supposed to be an extension of the academic experience and teach valuable lessons about personal growth, character and working toward a common goal. All of this seems to fly in the face of making cuts.”

Why yes, yes it does! These are some of the exact reasons why we think cuts have no place in developmental sport. More kids playing equals more benefits for all – kinda like Norway above…

“1. Athletes who sit the bench build resentment.” Not cutting players does not mean you just have more players to sit on the bench… Having no cut policies and practices in many cases give MORE kids a sporting chance to experience the benefits of being on a team and playing a sport. The above statement shows an all or nothing mindset – unless we cut, players sit on the bench. Time to shift that mindset:

Our research shows that when we cut kids from a sport team they are resentful: they do not want to continue in that sport, they have distaste for that sport and they chose not to participate in the future. In the presentation of our work at a variety of conferences, we have come across a number of teachers and coaches who shared their experiences shifting their mindset away from cutting and away from kids riding the bench towards an education-focused model of athlete development. Here are a few examples:

  • Tiered sport model (Manitoba). Students are tiered based on ability and placed on one of three teams. Tier 1 represents the school and competes against other schools in competition. Tier 2 and Tier 3 practice and have inter-squad competitions. One of the best parts of this model includes that if a student-athlete shows improvement, they can move up tiers to ensure they are at the level appropriate to their ability!
  • Everyone Plays (Alberta). Yes, we know all the logistics associated with this idea (gym space, the difficulty finding one coach, let alone multiple coaches, etc.). However, schools and teachers are making this happen. If a student wants to play on a school sport team, the answer is yes (a junior high school in Alberta said yes to over 100 students for basketball!). So how is this done? Teams practice in the mornings, at lunch, and after school. The school and staff have created an environment where teacher-coaches are valued, supported and want to coach. A similar model, where school sport programs include any kid who wants to play any school sport, has also been successful in Ontario.
  • More Teams (Saskatchewan). In this model, although students may still be cut from a sport team, the schools have created two teams as opposed to one at the grade 9 and 10 level – allowing more kids to play! One team (the Blue Team) is comprised of more advanced players. The other team (the Green Team) is comprised of players less advanced. For interscholastic competition, the Green Team from one school plays the Green Team from another school and Blue plays Blue, allowing for developmentally appropriate, leveled competition.

“2. Establish a predictable philosophy for team selection. 3. Other opportunities are available for athletes.” These two points we actually agree with – given an appropriate context. In previous post we highlight four factors that can improve the experiences of those athletes cut from sport teams (IF you feel you must cut):

  • immediacy (don’t make them wait!),
  • privacy (please don’t tell them in front of the whole group),
  • encouragement (provide options for continuing to improve in the sport), and
  • expectations (be clear up from about what you are looking for and the process of making the team).

Providing other opportunities for athletes who are cut can be key in keeping them engaged in the sport. Summer sport camps, drop-in programs at lunch, intramurals, local community and club programs – all of these options can encourage an athlete to keep developing in the sport.

“4. Keeping kids can lose kids.” 

“I recently saw a coach keep a large number of players for their program out of fear that another sport, new to the school, would take away kids. They kept many kids who rarely ever played. The end result was most of those kids, who were benched, defected anyway to the new sport at that school. So the intent of the coach backfired. They kept kids hoping to keep them away from the new program. However, lack of playing time drove them away. If word gets out that you are keeping kids but not playing them, you will have kids who don’t come out for your team. It’s the same as small college athletics. If word gets out about over-recruiting, then kids don’t come.”

To start with, the basic premise of this quote completely misses the point. The coach in question kept lots of kids so they wouldn’t go play another sport.

Wait. What?

That is cracked. Of course these kids left for the other sport because they weren’t valued or given opportunities to play! WHY ARE WE NOT PLAYING KIDS? Seriously. Why? Personally, we have taken up to 18 kids on our basketball teams and played everyone! With that many kids, we defined success in developmental terms – not by a win/ loss record. And, BTW, the kids (and their parents) totally bought in.

Remember wee Norway? You know the tiny country that won 39 medals at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. 93% of children and young people in Norway regularly play sports. In Canada, 77% of children and youth participate in organized physical activities or sport. Norway’s main focus is fun and social development; so much so, they do not keep score or rankings until age 13. Maybe we can win too, but only if we develop athletes first!

“Honesty first”

We agree that we “owe it to our student-athletes to provide genuine opportunities for success through athletics.” As for the job/ college analogy stated in the article?

“Nobody gets a job or gets into college just because they filled out the application. You have to earn the spot. You have to be the best person for the job.”

Heard it before. But let’s remember that school (and developmental sport!) is not life. It is preparation for life. Sport provides quality physical, social and emotional experiences – the opportunity to learn skills and concepts that last a lifetime. We need to ask – What is the goal? As for us? We believe that ensuring more sporting opportunities for as many kids as possible is better, much better, than the alternative.

We also need to be honest with ourselves – after all, we are the adults here! Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are we putting winning and maybe our coaching bragging rights, first?
  • Are we in it for ourselves (banners, prestige) or are we in it for the kids (development, fun, life skills)?
  • Who ultimately benefits from our team selection practices and coaching?

We realize that sometimes there are logistical reasons (time, people, space) for programs to cut kids. But let’s not use these as rationale to deny opportunities for kids to play. Let’s not let these be an excuse to refuse to REIMAGINE youth sport. How about we take a page from the Norwegian PLAYbook (see what we did there!) and let as many kids as possible play developmental sport and LOTS of it.

Ya. That’d be cool.

NOTE: if you have an example from your school, club or community team that allows more kids to play, drop us a line and let us know! lsulz@ualberta.ca dgleddie@ualberta.ca

Thanks Lauren, for being the first guest co-author of 2018!



5 thoughts on “We (respectfully) disagree.

  1. Danielle, let’s be a part of the conversation! I also shared this post with my AD and plan to talk with him about it. I’m a dad of upcoming athletes in our school and see changes need to be made. So glad you shared the article!

    Thanks Doug!

  2. Danilelle, let’s both be a part of the conversation. I’m also sharing it with our AD and will be advocating (as well as partnering with) a re-imagined program!

  3. Awesomely article and one that I for one have shared with our PE coordinator and our Health coordinator at EPSB. It may fall on deaf ears but it needs to be said over and over again. Changes need to happen sooner than later. Keep it coming Doug! Danielle

    Sent from my iPhone


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