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  • The case for LTPD: How the advocates can win the messaging war


    A few days ago, an article was posted here at CSN entitled "People always fear what they don't understand". While that story had nothing to do with the Canadian Soccer Association's long-term player development (LTPD) plan, that headline would have been equally fitting to this discussion.

    LTPD is once again in the middle of a public relations firestorm, as news outlets have jumped on the fact that the Ontario Soccer Association will mandate the removal of scores and standings from youth leagues in 2014. The plan has generated mainstream-media columns (some positive, some negative), well-thought-out opinions from some regular Canadian soccer voices (de Vos, Rollins, Sandor), and the predictable wave of anonymous Internet commentary of varying levels of insight and validity.

    There are plenty of viewpoints about the best path for Canadian soccer, to be sure. But what unites many (if not most) of us involved in the community is the realization that change is needed. While the LTPD plan is imperfect (as all plans are), and there is legitimate criticism to be leveled, we agree that the status quo is no longer acceptable -- for the sake of the game in our country and all who play and follow it.

    But as one Ontario soccer stalwart told me earlier this week, messaging has been a problem. The general public only views LTPD through the distorted prism of misleading headlines about "scoreless leagues" and ideologically-driven bluster about kids needing to learn "life lessons" through sport. So it's up to all of us to help ensure the narrative around LTPD stays on track, by communicating directly and honestly with those in the community yet to be sold on the idea -- and I've got 10 bits of guidance about how we can do that.


    Don't make presumptions about the intentions or motivations of LTPD opponents.

    It's easy, and satisfying, to assume that someone who disagrees with you on a topic is simply stupid, or impossible to reason with. And while there are plenty of stupid people who are impossible to reason with in this world, most people (I hope) are guided by the sincere belief that their way of thinking will lead to the best outcome. So when attempting to persuade someone involved in the game as to the merits of LTPD, give them the benefit of the doubt. Start off by presuming that they are legitimately concerned about the welfare of the kids, or of the sport in general, and go from there.

    Don't confuse legitimate criticism of the LTPD plan with an outright aversion to change.

    Say there's a problem with cars speeding through your neighbourhood. You believe the speed limit should be lowered by 10 km/h. Your neighbour, however, believes speed bumps need to be installed. While your solutions to the problem may differ, remember that you and your neighbour still want the same thing: Change. Some prefer change incrementally, while others opt for wholesale revisions. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, always recognize those rowing in the same direction as you, even if their stroke differs slightly -- and remember that if you both stop rowing in order to argue, the boat won't move.

    Realize that some minds can't be changed, and move on.

    For some inexplicable reason, Don Cherry decided to refer to the LTPD plan in a recent episode of his radio show Grapeline -- and, as you'd expect, it was just another "everything with the world today is scary and bad!" rant. His is the sort of drive-by commentary that doesn't deserve any attempts at refutations; Cherry and some others use LTPD in soccer merely as a proxy for their complaints about "kids today"/"social engineering by the government"/"socialism"/whatever. These people rarely have any legitimate interest in the game of soccer, and so attempting to change their minds on the subject is simply a waste of everyone's time. Use your energies more wisely.

    Emphasize that the scores/standing issue is just one element of a larger plan.

    Taken on its own, the news that scores and standings will be taken out of a sports league is jarring. It seems bizarre, possibly pointless. The first time I heard it, my visceral reaction was to reject such a massive shift. So, realize that this is surprising stuff to those who don't yet know that it's one piece of a larger puzzle -- and take the time to explain how the removal of scores and standings isn't random or arbitrary, but that it fits into a larger development ecosystem.

    Use examples of what the ultimate end goal of LTPD is: To help create the next generation of Christine Sinclairs and Dwayne DeRosarios.

    Sinclair and DeRosario are, of course, the two national-team players that even casual soccer observers or parents would probably recognize -- so using them as examples is likely to help people understand that the end game is an integrated development system that will try to ensure our men's and women's national teams have success in the future. Which brings me to my next point...

    Understand that many folks in youth soccer don't care about the national teams, and merely use the game as something to keep their kids active during the hockey off-season.

    This is a big one. It's easy for us to get the blinders on from time to time when considering soccer's place within this country. But the reality is that for a large percentage of folks whose kids are in soccer, the development pyramid doesn't (and won't ever) enter their minds as a meaningful concern. They're simply looking for a fun activity their kids can take part in when they're not busy with hockey, karate, baseball or whatever else. And for many, the idea of "fun" is wrapped up in ideas of winning and losing: "My kid has fun because they strive to win."

    The counter-argument is that a system in which kids aren't punished for trying new things, and where attention is paid to improving the individual skills and confidence of each player, is ultimately more fun for more kids -- even if soccer is just one among many activities in which they participate. Which brings me to my next point...

    Concede the point that "kids will still keep score", because they will. And this is perfectly fine!

    The ball will still go in the net, it will still be counted as a goal, and no one will deprive children of their ability to identify their team as the day's winner, or themselves as a goal-scorer. The "kids will keep score anyway" argument actually undermines the overall point of the LTPD opponents -- because if kids will naturally keep score (and, by extension, naturally want to win), then there's no harm by removing official tables, is there? Kids won't be deprived of the "life lessons" they supposedly learn through scorekeeping, nor will their competitive spirit be extinguished.

    Hey, don't you want our kids to play like Barcelona?

    Well, they won't, of course, because no club in Canada will ever come close to being La Masia. But much like using the examples of Sinclair and DeRosario, using the commonly-recognized example of Barcelona (and Lionel Messi) will hopefully help people understand that the "Canadian way" (boot it to the kid who happens to be the biggest and strongest) isn't the path to success. Messi is far from the biggest and strongest -- but he's the best. How did that happen? How can Barcelona do what it does with the ball?

    Yes, they can do it because their roster is stacked with preternaturally talented players, but the fundamental point is that LTPD's aim is to increase each player's technical skills -- without these, any hope of stringing together passes like Barca does is a non-starter. Which brings me to my next point...

    There are ways to measure success and development beyond the final score.

    We've established that kids will keep score in their heads anyway. But if parents and coaches are desperate for other ways to quantify whether or not their registration fee has been worthwhile, there are plenty of ways beyond the scoreline. One clever suggestion I've heard (unfortunately I've lost the original source) was counting the team's number of successful passes each game, and using that as the benchmark to beat for the following game. It's still numerical, it still drives kids' need to succeed -- but it also works on useful ball skills.

    That's just one possibility -- inventive coaches, parents and technical directors surely have others up their sleeve.

    Games are games, no matter what outside markers we attach to them. Kids love games -- and kids will still be playing games under LTPD.

    While many will associate "development" with "drills" (and "drills" with "running back and forth 50 times"), the reality is that a massive part of LTPD training is small-sided games. 4 v 4, 3 v 3, even 2 v 2. You put kids of any age on a field with two nets and tell them the idea is to get the ball into the opponent's net, and they'll figure it out. They'll play indefinitely, finding new ways to get the ball where it's supposed to go. And in a small-sided environment, each player gets more touches on the ball. More participation. More confidence. More fun.

    As someone who was a bit of a daisy-picker as a youth player, and then went on to coach and referee the games for years, I can tell you that many parents -- whose kids are fringe participants at best, under the current setup -- would love a system that gets their kid more involved in what's happening. Ironically, some of these parents are probably ardent opponents to the change being brought on with LTPD -- but that, I believe, is simply because no one's been forthright with them about what the change actually entails.

    Change is coming. The OSA and CSA seem intent on pushing things ahead regardless of ongoing questions and complaints from some circles. But the ideal outcome is not one in which the powers-that-be merely bulldoze over the legitimate concerns of parents and other stakeholders. Instead, people should be able to make up their own minds about their and their children's involvement in the game based on facts, not on the alarmist, drive-by commentary of those simply trying to use soccer to make grander social points.


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