I have been having a very interesting conversation on twitter with a couple of people about what it is going to take to develop better players out of Canada, and how the current system is hindering that development, on the heels of Canada’s 4-0 loss to France a few days ago.
I thought I’d blog about it because the 140 characters that twitter allows for, just didn’t seem like enough.
To those that don’t know me, here is a little background on me here: http://westerncanadasoccershowcase.com/?page_id=41
These views (below) obviously stem from my own experiences in many facets of the soccer system in both Canada and abroad.
4 Cracks in the Canadian System
1. The Coaching Cream Does Not Rise to the Top
The 3 best coaches that I have had in Canada (in no particular order) are Craig Smith (Ottawa Fury 2008), Frank LoFranco (Ottawa Fury 2007) and Sanjeev Parmar (Ottawa: www.parmarsportstraining.com).
After two years of coaching the Ottawa Fury, Craig is currently with the New Zealand National Team at the WWC. He will be returning in the fall to be the assistant coach at Quest University for the men’s and women’s team in Squamish BC. I’m not sure what Frank is doing, last I heard he’s involved with a small club in Ottawa. Sanjeev runs his own program that is booming on the fringe in Ottawa.
I have had some phenomenal, high profile coaches in my career including Dan Eggen (when I was at Kolbotn in Norway), who played 90 minutes when Norway beat Brazil in 1998, and for years in La Liga, and Eli Landsem (when I was at Fortuna Hjorring), who is currently the head coach for Norway’s WWC team. The content of Craig, Frank and Sanjeev’s sessions were comparable to the wonderful coaching I was lucky to receive from both Eli and Dan. Not to mention, in addition to being great coaches, all five blessed my life, as they are all phenomenal people.
My point? Craig, Sanjeev and Frank should be front and center at player development and talent spotting in Canada, in the same way Eli and Dan are in Norway. Coaches like them, should be grabbed and utilized, their talents reaching as many players as possible. Yet they are nowhere to be found. They are lost in the fringe, while many inferior coaches have the influential jobs.
Furthermore, the way the Canadian system is set up, these good coaches are pushed down, as so often, coaches that are far inferior are in better positions. They don’t want to be exposed, so they leverage their political power and keep those good coaches away. Sounds somewhat conspiratorial? Unfortunately, it’s a truth I have seen happen repeatedly.
2. Provincial Team and NTC Plugged as “The Only Way”
The Provincial Teams and NTC’s are set up and repeatedly reinforced within the youth system as the only pathway to the top.
As an example, of how this manifests within the system: I run the largest girls-only college showcase in Canada, the Western Canada Soccer Showcase (www.westerncanadasoccershowcase.com).
I first had the idea to start the Showcase in 2007, because so many girls, Provincial Team and otherwise were coming to me for help when they were in grade 12. To play NCAA soccer, starting the process in grade 12 is too late.
I liked the idea of a Showcase, as I felt it would take all the politics out of player selection; college coaches had different tastes in players, and different needs, and most importantly, they didn’t care who someone’s father was, or what team they played for. They simply wanted talent, whether it was honed in the NTC or in someone’s backyard.
I naively began sending out emails to people involved with top players in my area including a BC Provincial Team coach, asking him to let top players know it was happening. I received an email back cc-ed to 10 men on the BC Soccer Board (the lack of women involved at the top levels is a whole other discussion) questioning my audacity in asking for their assistance.
After being sent their “player development pathway” (which I might add on the girls side made no mention of university soccer, which every, single Canadian national team player has participated in), an invitation to meet in their offices was extended.
As I sat in a meeting with Mark Parker and Michael Findlay from BC Soccer, Mr Findlay told me, verbatim, “Let’s be honest, no kid not on the Provincial Team would be good enough to get a scholarship, maybe the odd Super Y kid, but that’s it. I don’t see the point.” I disagreed, and said, that was the exact reason that I felt the need to run the event.
I walked out of the meeting trying to work out, why BC Soccer (who coincidently I have to go through to get the paperwork necessary for the event), wouldn’t want someone to run something that was providing opportunity to the players under their jurisdiction.
And then it hit me in all my naivety. The way the system is set up, it was not beneficial for the reputation of a provincial program to have a player that their coaches deemed not good enough, to succeed (As an example; Nahiomy Ortiz was a player, with Canadian and Colombian passports, who got cut from the BC Provincial U16 team in 2008. Through the 2008 Showcase she was connected through a NCAA coach to the Colombian U17 team. She played 6 months later for Colombia, against Canada at the U17 World Cup)
Why wouldn’t a provincial organization in the present system set up, want a kid like Nahiomy to emerge from the Showcase? Because it questioned the validity/credibility of their player selection, and furthermore, God forbid, it showed there were other pathways for players to reach the top levels of soccer.
What then would the ramifications of that be for BC Soccer (or insert any other Provincial or NTC Program) if both these points were proven to be true? Less power and relevance for these bodies/coaches within the system, and subsequently their cushy piece of the pie threatened.
3. The Mental Ramifications of Only One Pathway
In a system set up whereby players/parents are told repeatedly that the Provincial Team and NTC are the only pathways to the top, quite simply kids don’t make those teams, and get the message that they are not good enough. Subsequently, those kids either quit the sport, put less effort into it, or move on to a different one altogether.
In some ways you could argue that in order to reach the top, you have fight through adversity; cue a million clichés such as “when one door closes, another one opens.”
Unfortunately when 14 year olds and their parents have it repeatedly reinforced that the pecking order is determined via Provincial Team and NTC selection, a lot of people don’t realize there are other doors, or don’t know where to begin to look for them. Often devastated, they look to pursue other life avenues and the Canadian team loses the potential next Christine Sinclair.
Contrast that with countries that I have played in such as Denmark and Norway, where players have high functioning clubs to develop at. A missed national team or regional team selection is not a big deal. They can go back to their club and with good performances and improvements can have a go the next time around.
I had a teammate in Denmark who moved up from a 1st division club when she was 25, to my club, which was the top club in Denmark at the time. This player, May Christensen had never been selected to the national team before. She promptly became the top scorer on our team that were silver medalists in the Champions League that year, and was rewarded with her first national team cap at age 26. She went on to play for Denmark for several years.
I couldn’t help but think at the time, this would never happen in Canada. How many players in Canada do we miss, that just develop later? How amazing a player pool could Canada have if there were dozens of clubs developing players up to their 30’s? How many more women would have the desire to stay involved in the system (such as in countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany) if they had the opportunity to pursue the game at a high level past their university careers? How much better would it be for Canada’s National Team players, if players had to continuously earn their spot week in and week out with their club performance, and were pushed continuously by a wide base of players to select from?
4. Lack of Player Development Opportunity=Lack of Accountability
At the youth level, I have witnessed the struggles that academies have in getting travel papers to be able to give their players a higher level of competition in places such as the US. There was even a case in BC of an academy having to threaten a lawsuit to be given permission by BC Soccer to take their players to tournaments across the border.
Why deny players this opportunity?
Again, it comes down to power. Through this power, competition is negated. The late Roman Tulis was one of the best youth coaches in the history of BC. Many top players on the boys and girls side in the 1990’s and 2000’s went to him. Yet I know many girls that were forced at age 13 to have to abandon his training after being told by their Provincial Team coach that they had to make a choice in their training, and couldn’t go to him anymore.
Sanjeev has trained some very talented girls in Ottawa for years that are currently in the NTC. They too have been told that they are not allowed to do outside training with him anymore, even though those girls would probably credit Sanjeev for getting them to where they are.
Girls and parents are faced with very powerful organizations across the country telling them this, ones that hold their soccer dreams in their hands, so most unfortunately, will just fold to their demands, as they don’t want to rock the boat.
With only one pathway, a dysfunctional one at that, and no other options, the power that is created for those organizations is immense. Options create accountability, and both options and accountability, allow the cream to rise to the top.
Both values are currently no where to be found within the Canadian system, and until those values become key components, our country will continue to lag behind more enlightened soccer nations.
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