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Bobby McMahon

Bobby McMahon

You can see me on Soccer Central most Mondays and Thursdays on Rogers Sportsnet in Canada. I write a regular column for and and frequently guest on various podcasts and radio shows.


Youth Player Development In Canada – A Step Back Going Forward

Written by on March 3, 2011 | 22 Comments »
Posted in Coaching and Sports Science

Derek Taylor tweeted a story that appeared on the CBC website on Wednesday.

The opinion piece is authored by former Canadian captain Jason de Vos who seeks to set the record straight on plans to, amongst other things,  retool the development model for young soccer players in this country.

It is in response to a typically uninformed rant in the Winnipeg Rag …sorry Sun by their resident intolerant columnist Tom Brodbeck.

Brodbeck is the type of columnist who appeals to readers who have forgotten that they read the same rubbish the day before (and the day before that) under the guise of a different topic.

Everyone is stupid in the world except Tom who really should pen his stuff using the alter ego Richard Cranium.

But enough of that and back to the issue. Here is some background to the story.

The Canadian Sport system has adopted a model called “Long-Term Athlete Development” or more widely recognized by the acronym “LTAD”.

As the Canadian Soccer Association receives government funding they are expected to adopt and implement a soccer version, hence the slight change from “athlete” to “player”. If the program is not adopted by a sport then funding will more than likely be cut or even terminated.

The decision by the Canadian Soccer Association to name their program “Wellness to World Cup” is guaranteed to bring on an inadvertent gag reflex or two while the more cynical amongst us might point out that the words “Failure to Qualify for the” appear to have been conveniently erased.

But the Canadian Soccer Association cannot simply mandate the program but requires each of the provinces to plan implementation in their own specific areas of the country.

One of the most attention grabbing pieces of the overall model is to encourage more general athletic development in all children and in the case of sport specific plans to emphasize greater skill development in young soccer players. To do so the model suggests more practise and fewer competitive situations in the younger age-groups.

As plans (or in some cases the intention to plan) are rolled out across the country a number of provincial associations are receiving a lot of flak.  Doing away with league standings and in some cases scores in games involving younger players are fodder for the headline writers, self-righteous columnists and open line radio hosts trawling for phone calls from the terminally stunned during the ratings period.

To a certain degree the provincial associations have brought problems on themselves. Their public comments on the issue have often been poorly planned, communicated and simply naive to the point that it difficult to believe any communications plan was even considered.

But nonetheless on one level I don’t have a problem with the new initiative but on the other I am a bit conflicted. I keep feeling that we have adults, who took away the ability of children to organize their own play, trying to make up for their mistakes and in doing so may be making new mistakes. Not so much in embracing the theory but more through implementation.

I am also stung by the evangelical tone taken by the promoters of the new model. A prevailing attitude is of a great revelation being offered up – if only we had known this all along, things would be so very different, sort of idea.

The thing is we have known most of the key elements for many years. Nearly three decades ago I distinctly remember discussing the issue of adult run youth leagues with a then teammate who was working in the system as a soccer administrator.

I stand to be corrected on the original source of the information but I believe it came from the late Bob Bearpark who was with the Canadian Soccer Association at the time.

My friend was able to reference academic studies undertaken in Europe that identified what kids want from sport and in particular soccer. Anyone who has ever played the game as a youngster will recognise the key aspects.

Lots of touches of the ball, lots of goals, even sides. It is really is simple stuff. Cast your mind back to a pick-up game when you were a kid.

What happened when one team went up by 4 or 5 goals? One of two things. When new players arrived to join the game the best player or players got placed on the weaker side or you moved players on to the losing team in order to restore the competitive balances.

Youth soccer in Canada has rarely if ever been about players – it has been about the adults. Perhaps the best thing adults can offer kids is to stand back and let them rediscover the joy of organizing their own play. That would be real player development.

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22 responses to “Youth Player Development In Canada – A Step Back Going Forward”

  1. Derek Taylor says:

    I like the idea of few games and less-emphasis on winning. Probably more to keep the adults in line than for any other reason.

    I think back to when I was a youngster. I was a pretty good athlete and always got plenty of game time and hits/catches/whatever. But what about the kid who was stuck in right field for his mandatory 6 consecutive outs and one at bat? Yes he may have booted things horribly if he played first base. But right field (at the kids’ level) is standing in a weedy field for 15 minutes. That’s not fun. Everyone should be out there to have fun.

    Yes winning is fun too. But the growth in youth sports is going to come from the lesser players…the ones who aren’t the top local stars (however local you want “local” to mean). Those stars will keep coming back regardless. It’s the kid who’s looking for a sport/camaraderie/fun that these leagues need to appeal to.

    And don’t get me started on parents or the “we need better coaches” angle.

  2. Soccerlogical says:

    Just increase the immigration quota for Brazilians and then Canada will be just fine!

  3. Derek Taylor says:



  4. Theo van Nasarshavregas says:

    You should run for public office SL and solve all our problems.

  5. Alberta Gooner says:

    Well said, Bobby, and an excellent follow-up to your piece on Morace.

    A big part of the struggle will be educating the parents about the importance of skill development in a fun environment, particularly on travel or “rep” sides.

    A big part of the problem is parental expectations. They enrol their children in a program expecting them to be “taught”. And for many of them, that means plenty of drills involving cones, bibs and shouty coaches rather than a relaxed, less structured environment with plenty of balls that encourages creativity and skill development rather than playing in a system. I know minor hockey in Canada appears to be confronting the same issue. One of the best books I’ve read on the subject is Whose Puck Is It Anyway about a couple of former NHLers who decided to coach a minor hockey team in Ontario and emphasize skill development over teaching kids to play within a “system.”

    The other observation I’d make is the days of going out with your buddies to the local park to kick around a ball without being “coached” are long gone so kids are rarely exposed to time on the ball without the unhelpful counsel of coaches that tends to stifle creativity.

    What’s funny is our association has more than a few kids who were born and raised in Africa, the Middle East and South America. They grew up playing street soccer or park football before moving to Canada as young kids and, to a child, they display a good deal more technical skill and invention with the ball than North American-bred kids who have the benefit of all kinds of programs and camps.

    One of our directors, who grew up in Liverpool in the 60s and 70s, claims these kids probably had a similar childhood to his in terms of how he learned the game.

    Just some random thoughts and keep up the good work.

  6. AG – great to her from you again. I have a former teammate who ran a program a couple of years ago during the summer break that helped kids organize there own pick up games. The ability “to play” in an unstructured environment had been lost. He tried to show them ways to structure games when there was 5 of them or 7 of them.

    Three goals and in, how to rotate positions, games of headers if there were only two of them. Not allowed inside a certain area to shot etc.

  7. BC Spur says:

    I agree with most of your points but I’m a little taken aback with the comment about the “evangelical tone” remark. This has been a hammer and tong battle against the old guard to right the wrongs of our previous ways. If it wasn’t for this evangelical fervor perhaps we wouldn’t be having this discussion as we continued our steady decline in world football. Overall, another quality piece though.

  8. Soccerlogical says:

    Generally speaking, the less developed (i.e the poorer) the region, the less community organized events and less society rules. Fewer rules and less rigid societies allow kids to develop fantasy and the audacity to try various improvised skills in friendly soccer games on a Saturday afternoon.

  9. John Bladen says:

    Most ‘developed’ nations have the same kinds of problems across all youth sports. We impose too much competitive structure on what should be a fun game. The relatively small number of elite player prospects shouldn’t be getting their instruction through the rec leagues, frankly.

    I don’t agree with the ‘don’t keep score’ argument, as it will invariably lead to apathy even amongst those just playing for fun. Having said that, there should be significant effort expended by the organizations involved to ensure that minor sport features as even competition as is possible, not super teams assembled as much to promote the achievements of the coaches and executives as the players.

    I have a wonderful series of instructional films done by Bobby Jones in the 1930’s. I can’t put it better than he did in his closing remarks:

    “the goal of professional instruction is not to create champion golfers, rather, it is to improve the skills of the whole, and create a greater experience of the game for all.”

  10. I think the idea of “not keeping score” is deeply flawed. The kids will keep score anyway and think the adults are complete idiots.

    Kids look to professional sports and if they keep score then they want to keep score.

  11. Derek Taylor says:

    I played soccer last night with a bunch of guys and we managed to get through an hour without keeping score. Emotionally and psychologically I came away undamaged.

    What’s the big about the score Bobby? There are so many little victories within a game, both one-on-one and challenges within yourself, to foster competitiveness. Why is the score so important? Why is that element not worth examining?

  12. BC Spur says:

    As soon as coaches and parents realize scores are kept they wear this as a badge of honor. Jane and Joe Six Pack then tell little Johnny to score as much as he can,etc. These changes are meant for the coaches and parents to alter their focus more than anything. Of course the kids keep score. There is a reason England has recently adopted similar tenants in relation to their grassroots football. Decades of focus on competition and results has gotten them to the finals of 1 major tournament. Ever. Try have altered their focus to technical development also, in hopes of competing for something one day. They lack technical footballers at their senior level too. End of.

  13. greg mclauchlin says:

    Even at the the U-17 through U-21 level in Argentina and Brazil, the emphasis is on the development of players rather than results. The competitive structure exists and is essential but success even at that level is not judged by how many trophies an U-17 side wins (even if it is the World Cup) but how many players take the step to the next level.

    I don’t think there is any harm in having scored matches of football and tournaments at a youth level- Kids would surely find it boring to be in coaching sessions day after day a little boring-but they should exist only to facilitate the development of skills not as the end game.

    There is also an interesting parallel in Ireland right now. Although it is not a “top-down” initiative like in Canada, it is an effort to re-think player development.
    Here’s the link:

  14. greg mclauchlin says:

    And regarding scoring – it’s something that will happen organically in probably any football game. It’s the importance that gets ascribed to to that score that makes the difference.

    In street football, which although feature lots of flair and tricks is also extremely competitive, the score is slightly marginalized to being able to “humiliate” your direct opponent. A little panna or a nutmeg is worth a goal or two.

    If you have a bunch of adults who ascribe some greater significant to a score – this kid/team is “winner” then it’s a problem.

  15. Bill Ault says:

    Just a note NO WHERE in the LTPD document does it say scores will not be kept. To quote my own piece on the subject…

    “No where in the proposed Long Term Player Development documents I have read does it say scores will not be kept. Even if it did say such a thing, this is nigh impossible as everyone involved in any game, parents, players, coaches and officials know what the score is. Even in non-organized sport (the near endangered species that it is) everyone keeps score.

    The LTPD does call for no league standings and a jamboree format with an emphasis on fun at U6 – U9 and an organized schedule but no standings for the U9 – U12s. To point out the academy program in traditional soccer nation England, involving some of the world’s major clubs, does not keep standings (or tables if you prefer) until, wait for it U18.”

    Too many people are focused on this non-issue (and non-starter) of not keeping score. It’s about technical development and the introduction of competition at the appropriate time in a player’s development. Get the focus on SKILLS NOT SCORES.


  16. Bill Ault says:

    Should have said SKILLS NOT STANDINGS got a little carried away 🙂

  17. Bill – I don’t believe I linked “not keeping score” to the LTAD model or LTPD model. But it has been raised by certain jurisdictions which goes to my point about communications being poorly planned.
    It also goes to the comment I made about “evangelical tone.”

  18. Bill Ault says:

    Agreed. The planning of communicating the goals of the LTPD has been poorly planned and executed but something I feel needs to be done.

    We need to get the focus on technical development not winning trophies at u10 and u12.


  19. Soccerlogical says:

    As much as I respect Jason de Vos and enjoyed his dignified analysis on the 2002 WC, the best way for Canada’s youth development to improve its technical skills is to put a former creative or skill player in charge of the program as we have done with Claudio Reyna and not a former defender.

  20. John Bladen says:


    Come on, tell the truth… are you admitting that your mob played for an hour last night and no-one managed to put the ball in the net?

  21. Dean Kriellaars says:

    LTAD/LTPD is a grand experiment with our children. I really hope it works out. The problem is we have no measure of success. How will we ever know if it works?

    Great piece! Thanks Bobby.

  22. Derek Taylor says:

    John Bladen:

    Oh the other team probably beat the tar out of us. There were a bunch of goals, but the exact score remains a mystery.

    In the end I’m for anything that focuses on skill development in sports for young kids rather than coaches trying to win games.

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