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!



Guest Post: Why Intramurals? Why Not!

This guest post is a direct result of a Twitter conversation about school sport opportunities. We were discussing re-imagining school sport and Steve Friesen reminded us of the value that intramural sport can provide. So, I asked him to write a guest post! Steve’s contact info is at the bottom of the post if you would like to get in touch!

Last month, we had our school team basketball tryouts. At the end of it, 45 students had RTBmade the four teams. That same month we started our intramural 4 on 4 basketball league – we had 19 teams and 135 students playing. These students played for 7 weeks, twice a week and loved every minute of it. Previous to the intramural basketball we had team dodge ball – 21 teams and 175 students. Now, we are running team handball – 17 teams, 120 students playing. We will finish the year with three more activities – speedball, flicker ball (the most popular!) and indoor soccer. We do all of this with a 40 minute lunch and a firm belief that every student has the right to play sports at our school.

How do we do this? First of all, the intramural program is a priority for our health and physical education department – we’re all involved in the program. Our student athletic council takes care of the timing, scoring and the gym set up. And we, the staff, take care of the supervision. Our students play every week – 5 days per week from September to June. The intramural program is not only part of our health and physical education program, it is an essential component of our school culture – a culture that promotes and values the physical activity and wellness of every student.

The intramural program at my school (in Ontario, Canada) is just one of what I call ‘green light’ programs for our students to be physically active. Every day, 30 minutes before period 1, we open the gym and get 60 – 70 students playing basketball. We have intramurals/ open gym at lunch and after school we open our fitness center for any student in the school who wants to work out.

When I started teaching 30 years ago I figured that the best way to give back was to coach. As an athlete in high school and university I started coaching football and basketball. But it occurred to me – while coaching basketball – that I wasn’t having the impact that I wanted. In 1997, I stopped coaching basketball and committed full time to running an intramural program. In two years, we had over 300 students (I was at a larger high school at the time) signing up for every intramural activity. I traded coaching 12 students for running a program that impacted hundreds.

In 2003, I created Raise the Bar (recently partnered with Ophea) – a program that runs student leadership conferences and teacher training workshops across Ontario. Funded provincially since 2006 (now by the Ministry of Education), Raise the Bar works with schools, trains teachers and develops student leaders so that every student has the opportunity to play. Our conferences are in high demand and are always sold out (400 – 600 students/teachers)!

What has puzzled me for so long is why schools don’t put a bigger priority on intramurals. They’re everything that we’re looking for – mass participation, opportunities to work on skills and a great extension for the physical education program. Maybe it’s because people haven’t seen a great program in action. They haven’t seen the excitement or felt the amazing energy from having so many students getting together in the gym for one common purpose – to play. The future of physical education, for me, will be determined by our ability to embrace the understanding that every student wants the opportunity to play sports at school and that it is our job to make sure that happens.

Thanks for the post Steve! Please feel free to contact him for more information.

Steve Friesen is the department head of health and physical education at a high school in Ontario, Canada. He is also the founder and director of Raise the Bar and a program consultant with the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association.

stevefriesen22@gmail.com       @RTBIntramurals            www.raisethebarintramurals.com


Cuts like a knife – but it feels so…

Wrong. It feels wrong.keep-kids-playing-sports

The following is the ‘non-edited for newspaper’ version of an OpEd that @Lauren_Sulz and @LouiseHumbert and I wrote for the Edmonton Journal’s Opinion Page. (Image to the right is from Active for Life – more good reading over there!)

The first time you get cut from a team sucks. The second time is probably no better, but many kids will not ever bother to try out again. And yes, we’ve heard the ‘…but Michael Jordan was cut from HIS high school team and look where he ended up.’ mantra. Regardless of your perspective, cutting kids from sports is controversial and we seem to be staring at each other across a chasm of:

“It builds character – kids these days need to toughen up.” “It’s life – not everyone makes the team.”


“Everyone has the right to play.” “It turns kids off of sport, for life.”

As professionals in physical education who have played and coached sport at a variety of levels, we wanted to take a closer look at the practices of de-selecting (cutting) kids in sport – particularly in school. Perhaps we could begin to bridge the chasm and find out how we can help coaches and kids – maybe even make a painful process less so. Since we also happen to be researchers, we designed a study to do so – go figure! We talked to young athletes who had been cut from a sports team in the past and their parents (52 one-on-one discussions) and surveyed coaches and athletic directors (1667 in total!). Our goals were to understand, from multiple perspectives, the experience of being cut and to find strategies that may ease the stress of this practice and encourage kids to keep playing.

In short, we found out some interesting stuff. First off, de-selection cuts deep. There are negative emotional, social and physical consequences. Athletes lose friends and are forced to find new social circles. They question their own identities and can feel lost and adrift. Perhaps quite obviously, their self-esteem is shaken. Time spent being physically active is reduced – not being on the team means no more practices and games. Cutting also deterred athletes from future participation in the same sport. As well, when no specific feedback was provided as to why athletes were cut there was a tendency to assume a low level of skill and a prediction of future failure. The same results happened when athletes were given feedback about things they can’t change like, ‘You’re too short’.

For coaches, regardless of the way cuts were communicated, our study found four factors that can improve the experience. 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 front about what you are looking for and the process of making the team). As well, the athletes themselves told us that the best way to help them cope with being cut is to provide clear reasons in a face-to-face meeting. In these meetings, coaches can keep things candid and up front by:

  • Stating the outcome right away – don’t beat around the bush.
  • Tell athletes why they were cut – specific, personal explanations.
  • Provide actionable feedback – things athletes can actually improve.
  • Write it up – eliminate miscommunication or misperceptions.

We shared these results on the Canadian Sport for Life blog (http://canadiansportforlife.ca/blog/easing-pain-cutting-kids-sport-are-there-best-practices-dr-lauren-sulz) and were blown away by the attention it garnered – over 10,000+ views of the page and counting. More significantly, we began to receive emails from people who took the time to share their experiences and stories with us:

From a coach (and parent):

“I appreciated your article, and it’s quite timely for me, I am faced with two sessions of cuts from a Pee Wee A Provincial hockey team, and not looking forward to it at all.”

After a detailed explanation of the hockey world, evaluation, coaching and communicating to parents, this reader finished with:

“Looks like I’ve worked through a lot of frustrations – you don’t even have to answer me, doc, I’ll do it for you: ‘In evaluating these young athletes, you tried your best, buddy, and that’s the most important thing.  Don’t give up trying to get better, though.’ Thanks again for the article, I can say your interview and survey efforts will positively affect lots of 11 and 12 year olds this season!”

From a parent:

“I just read your article and I wanted to tell you about my son’s experience in tryouts. My son is 8 (that’s right, only 8) he was on a Tier 1 team.  His team was really good and then after the season, they had tryouts for the next season.  The tryouts were two 1-hour tryout sessions.  At the end of the 2nd day, all of the players were called into a circle around the coaches.  If you made one of the teams, your name was called and you were given a piece of paper to give to your parents to register you for the team.  After all of the papers were given out, the rest were told they did not make a team.  So my son and his teammates that made the team were all cheering wildly. A couple of boys from his team did not make the roster of the new team.  They just sat there while the rest of their old teammates screamed with joy. This made me sick.”

The same parent went on to say,

“I wrote to you in part because I feel so powerless.  I need to vent about this.  I know that how the kids are being treated is wrong, but that if I complain my son could suffer consequences of being the son of a ‘trouble maker’. Please use my story and I hope that it can save some kids from experiencing what the kids trying out for my son’s team face.”

We are incredibly frustrated and saddened by the fact that 8 year olds, 11 year olds and others are being cut from teams each and every sport season. Come on Canada, we need to do better. We aren’t saying that there should never be cuts for some teams. There is a time and a place. But that time and place should not indicate an END of sport participation. It is obvious to us that the conversation around cutting kids in sport – especially at the developmental level – MUST continue. Canadian kids are less active and less healthy than ever before. Sport can provide quality physical, social and emotional experiences – learning skills and concepts that last a lifetime. Do we want more kids playing sports? If the answer is yes, then sport organizations at all levels need to examine their practices to ensure opportunities for as many kids as possible.

We’d love for you to contribute to the conversation at: Share Your Team Selection Experiences


If you want to hear a little more, listen to the recording from a local call-in radio show featuring this article . Thanks to @Albertaatnoon for having me on! Good chat.



Winning VS Development: not even close…

This post is the first of what I intend to be a bit of a series on youth sport and kind of picks up where A Sporting Chance left off.  I want to chat briefly about winning vs. development in child and youth sport and share a wee epiphany with you. Although this has long been a topic close to my heart, I have been doing much more thinking and reading on the topic as preparation for the Re-Imagining School Sport pre-conference session that Vicki Harber (@vharber) and I planned for the #Banff2015 National HPE Conference. The day was full of great conversations and evidence to push some of the boundaries of what we know is good for kids in sport.  As well, two recent articles on youth sport caught my attention this week and are worth the time for you to read them (now or later- it’s up to you).

Where the “elite” kids shouldn’t meet.  Tim Keown, ESPN.  All about the marketing and the myth of elite sport for preteens.  “This is the age of the youth-sports industrial complex, where men make a living putting on tournaments for 7-year-olds, and parents subject their children to tryouts and pay good money for the right to enter into it.”

Playing youth sports about having fun, developing skills.  Jason Gregor, The Edmonton Journal.  This article is all about why a 9 year old hockey player quit playing spring hockey and the letter his dad wrote explaining the decision. “…as a nine-year-old, you have only played two shifts in the game, no matter how important that game is … it is time to have a talk with yourself and re-evaluate why we do this.”

Full disclosure: I am extremely biased on this topic and believe that there shouldn’t even be a debate. In my mind, if you are involved in child or youth sport in any way, shape or form (parent, coach, ref, etc.) and consider placing winning some banner, trophy or medal ahead of the development of individuals and teams – you should give your head a shake. Just thought you should know…

In this installment, I want to address the culture of “my kid is really good and therefore deserves to play much more so we can win”.  Kinda what both of the previous two article’s address.

I once chatted with a parent who was bemoaning the fact that her daughter was playing the same amount as other kids on her team. She shared with me that, in addition to the $1,400 team fees that all the kids played, she was also spending $800/month on private training and weekend clinics (her daughter was playing U15 volleyball). In her mind, her daughter should be playing more because she was spending more on training and was “better” than the other girls. This got me thinking…

Let’s look at a professional sports franchise – often held up as the pinnacle of sport achievement.  The Edmonton Oilers, not currently contending for Lord Stanley’s Cup (but things are looking up!), are such a team.  According to http://www.hockey-reference.com, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made $6,000,000 last season and averaged 20:38 minutes a game.  In contrast, Luke Gazdic made $800,000 and averaged 7:23 minutes.  Hmmm…  Here comes the epiphany – wait for it!

Since there are a certain number of people who want kids to play “just like the big leagues”, why don’t we model that?  Since our kids DON’T get paid to play, what about if kids that PLAY MORE – PAY MORE! PLAY LESS – PAY LESS! We could have a sliding scale based on minutes / sets, etc.  That way, those that want their kids to play more can pay for that privilege!  Brilliant, eh?

Sounds odd but if you really want your team to focus on winning, wouldn’t this be the best way to go?  (insert sarcastic emoticon here)

Of course I am being facetious, however, I am using this example to ask why we focus so much on winning in youth sport? Kids really don’t need to focus on winning – sure, anyone would rather win than lose BUT – their care does not last… There has been LOTS written about what kids value in sport – winning is not at the top of the list. Winning should not be a high stakes game for kids.

So.  You GET PAID to play? Then playing time can differ.

If YOU PAY, then you should PLAY!

School sport, youth sport – anything that claims to be developmental and “for the kids” should be held accountable to actually follow through and be “for the kids”. Why the focus on banners, titles, trophies, winning as the main goal? I have yet to hear someone with a valid argument on why (in a “developmental system”) – please let me know if you do!

I could tell you more stories on this theme but I’d rather post this for now and then take a look in the pot I have stirred up…