This week, I flew out to Saint John, New Brunswick to speak at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association men's soccer championships. There are eight teams from across the country contesting the nationals, with games taking place from Wednesday to Saturday. You can watch the action live by clicking this link.
While I was in Saint John, I also had the chance to speak to coaches and volunteers from the Fundy Soccer Association.
We often focus our attention on the top of the pyramid in Canadian soccer - professional teams in MLS or our men's and women's national teams. While many fans are keen to follow the stories at the highest level of the game, there are also some great stories to tell about the people who are the real lifeblood of the game in Canada - the volunteers who run grassroots clubs.
The Fundy Soccer Association is a great example. Their organization is full of volunteer administrators, referees and coaches, all trying their hardest to give the kids in their community a great experience with the game of soccer. It isn't about developing professional or national team players for them (although doing so would be icing on the cake); it is about ensuring that every child that comes into their club falls in love with the game, has fun, and stays involved in soccer for the rest of their life. It is about teaching them life lessons through the game of soccer.
They are implementing the principles of long-term player development (LTPD) at their club because they understand the reasoning and research behind it. It isn't always an easy sell - there are parents that reject small-sided games and age-appropriate competition because it "doesn't look like real soccer" - but they continue to preach the gospel of LTPD in the hopes that it will soon become the norm.
What organizations like Fundy need more than anything, is support.
There are two major areas where that support would make a major difference - the first being coach education. When a club is reliant upon volunteer coaches (the vast majority of non-profit grassroots clubs in Canada would not exist if not for volunteer coaches), attracting and retaining coaches is paramount. That is very difficult to do when the cost of training and certifying those coaches is taken into consideration.
It is one thing to ask a parent or volunteer to give up their time for their club. It is quite another to then ask them to pay for the privilege. While many clubs across the country pick up the cost of coach education (which they offset through higher registration fees or hard-earned sponsorship money that needs to be generated year after year), many of them cannot. In those situations, the cost of coach education is passed on to the volunteer coach - making it even more difficult to attract and retain coaches.
I've said it before (and I'm sure I'll be saying it again in the future) but our governing bodies need to find revenue sources that completely offset the cost of coach education. Making coach education free to volunteer coaches across the country removes a massive barrier to grassroots coach education, making it far easier for organizations like Fundy to develop coaches.
The second area that requires support is curriculum.
Volunteer coaches often find themselves rushing home from work, collecting their kids and dashing off to practice. They keep a bag of balls, their boots and assorted coaching equipment in their cars, because they are out on the field three or sometimes four nights a week. They simply don't have time to sit down on their computers after work to look for training ideas on the internet.
Shouldn't it be easier than that? Shouldn't those volunteer coaches have a document that they can use, a blueprint for the development of young soccer players they can refer to when stretched for time?
Of course they should. And that's where a national curriculum comes into play. That we don't have one is a problem that the CSA needs to rectify immediately. Work is being done on that right now, but until such time as we have our own national curriculum, volunteer coaches across the country will be left to fend for themselves. The Fundy Soccer Association and those like it that exist across the country deserve better than that.