1.       What is LTPD? 

LTPD stands for Long-Term Player Development.  It represents a philosophy that is much more focused on ensuring players who love soccer stay in the game for life and enjoy the experience.  It further ensures that all players—recreational and the more talented, competitive players—are developed to their full potential. LTPD (though not necessarily with a formal “name” attached to it) is common practice in many of the best soccer nations in the world.  It stresses, especially at the crucial early development ages, far less emphasis on games and “winning”, and much more on practice, touches, creativity, skill development and learning how to play and enjoy the game.  In Ontario, we are working toward an approach where players U12 and younger will practice and train much more than they play in “games”, with field sizes and training methods geared to specific development stages, which can be different for every young player. 

For the aspiring players, they in later years (U13 and up) will have the opportunity to play in a very competitive elite-level league.  Further, such players will have much greater opportunity to be “identified” for regional programs and ultimately the provincial team, and not just at the U13 level, for example.   

We are also tackling, through LTPD, the “elephant in the room”, a fragmented competitive and league structure which has hindered creativity and player development for too long in Ontario.

In short, we are committed to a different mindset, creating a soccer culture that is about really getting the best out of our players, so they continue to learn and grow every day.  Everything we do going forward will be rooted in this objective:  what is best for the player to help them reach their potential. 

2.       Is this about developing elite level athletes or recreational players? 

Both! The focus of LTPD is to help both the player who is in youth soccer strictly for fun and fitness, but also the talented youngster who dreams of a future in the sport—be it a scholarship and/or to play professionally or for the Canadian National team.  At the young ages, we will stress basic physical literacy, and players will go through the various development stages not worried about “winning games” but instead actually developing their individual skills.  There will still be competition but the emphasis will be not on avoiding “mistakes”, or coaches selecting the biggest, fastest players to help “win” league games, but rather giving all players the opportunity to play and develop their skills.

3.       Isn’t this just another trendy thing recommended by academics who don’t even know soccer?

One of the great things about LTPD is that it is much more than an academic exercise.  It is a proven method of developing players—with science and research to back the claims—long already utilized by some of the best soccer nations in the world, including Spain, Germany, US,  Australia and many others.  England has embarked on this road as well, because top former players and coaches there have identified that the emphasis at the early ages on “winning” hurts true player development. 

So while we know change is often resisted, and we understand that, we also know that those who are passionate about soccer in Ontario (and Canada)—whether administrators, coaches or parents—want the best for the young boys and girls who play our great game.

So if you are playing for fun, we want the experience to truly be fun.  If you are playing for fun and to go further in the game, we know from international “best practices” that this approach will grow the sport in Ontario and Canada and most importantly, give many more youngsters the chance to shine, be identified and find a future in the game.

4.       I talked to my child’s coach and they said they didn’t agree with LTPD.  Why is this being pushed on us?

We understand that there will be pushback from some coaches and parents and even some on the administrative side of the game.  That’s natural.  And we want to be clear.  Not everything about the way that soccer has been “delivered” in Ontario has been ineffective.  We have many great coaches.  Many Clubs and Academies have done some wonderful things for years and are ahead of this curve.  But we need to understand that this is the direction that all sports in Canada are indeed moving.  Canadian Sport for Life has started the ball rolling, and the Canadian Soccer Association has taken this to the next step.  Here in Ontario, we are looking at what is being done in soccer around the world and we are determined to create our own “made-in-Ontario” approach to doing what is right for our young players.

For example, we have upgraded our coaching curriculum to make it much more focused on our players and developing skills.  Importantly, we will be spending all of 2012 creating awareness around LTPD and what it means, and hopefully dispelling some of the miscommunication that is out there.  We will be looking for feedback from all across the province, so that once we start to phase in LTPD in 2013, we are all working together to make the soccer experience all that is can and should be for all of our players, regardless of where they live in the province.

5.       Are you getting rid of the Ontario Youth Soccer League (OYSL)?  If so, why? It was a great league for good players. 

The OYSL has played an important role for many years.  Over the past few months, we have had some top soccer people in the province, part of our Technical Advisory Council (TAC) research what is being done elsewhere (in British Columbia, for example, and in soccer centers around the world) and what is the best way to structure our competitive leagues to ensure we give our players the best chance to develop and reach their potential in soccer. 

One of the things we have identified is that, rather than create an elite development league that tends to draw individual teams that are built around “star” players (and unfortunately, quite often players who have been “poached” from other Clubs/teams), we will establish key standards—benchmarks that Clubs must achieve in order to be considered to have their teams play in a high-level development league.

So, rather than promotion and relegation as driving factors (and some of the many negatives that come with that approach in youth soccer) we will be pushing Clubs to meet LTPD standards in coaching, training and administration.

6.       LTPD sounds great why is it taking so long getting it implemented?

Based on the extensive feedback we are receiving, we know already that we are moving way too fast for some, and way too slow for others.  Some want change things tomorrow; others would prefer the status quo. 

Our job is to listen to everyone who has the best interests of the children at heart, and then do what is right based on LTPD values—and lots of real-life experience and very current research.  It is clear that LTPD is a great approach, and from a timing perspective, we want to do things right, rather than quickly.  So we are looking at a phased-in approach to LTPD, with some pilot projects already underway in 2012 and with an eye toward broader implementation—again, pilots, phased-in, starting at the younger ages—in 2013.

7.       It makes no sense to play a sport and never keep score and not have standings. How else do we know how our kids are doing?

While parents are of course interested in how their son or daughter’s team is “doing”, most parents are understandably most concerned with a) is their child enjoying the sport they are participating in and b) are they seeing an increase in the skill level of their child.  While watching “games” can be enjoyable, unfortunately too many parents—and yes, coaches—take games and game results far too seriously.  This creates a focus on scores, winning games and league standings even at the early ages (U8-U12, for example) when the focus really should be on whether each player is progressing and developing as they can and should. 

Parents want to see enjoyment and they like to see improvement.  When we really strive to focus on those things, we are helping the child the most. 

There will be plenty of room—and time—for competition.  House-league participants will still play games, but there will be more practices than games.  And games will be played on small-sized fields as appropriate for younger players.

For the serious player looking to play at a high level in the future, there will be no lack of competition as part of a holistic approach to authentic overall skills development.  Competitive leagues for talented players U13 and older will provide an extremely challenging environment where winning will be part of the objective—once the players have developed the necessary skills and a thorough understanding of the game.

8.       Competition is a natural part of life why take it away from children.  Isn’t it better to learn to compete in a controlled environment such as on the soccer pitch?

Competition is “part of life” without question.  But at the early ages (U8-U12) we need to focus on enjoyment and skill development.  We have been lacking in this regard for too long in Canada.  Our kids have natural talent, as much as anyone in the world.  But if they don’t receive the best type of training, skills development and coaching at the early ages, those that aspire to play internationally some day won’t and aren’t ready to compete with the world’s best in later years. 

Clearly, the present “system” has not worked for Canada.  So we need to do better, much better.  And we will.  And part of that is a focus on skills, rather than just games and “winning”.  Once youngsters reach an appropriate age range, likely U13, there will be plenty of opportunity to compete—and to learn how to “win” and lose”—at a recreational or elite level here in Ontario.

Working Through The Questions Raised About LTPD

We listened intently during our recent 11-city “tour” of the province and we continue to engage on a daily basis with Districts, Clubs, leagues, coaches and parents from across the province about their support for and/or concerns stemming from the continued implementation of LTPD. Especially in light of media coverage in different parts of the province in recent days, I sense now is a good time to deal with some of the legitimate questions and also some of the myths and misconceptions that continue to be spread around what we are doing:
While we have had a tremendous amount of positive feedback from parents, Clubs and Districts, here are some of the “negatives” that we hear:

1) Kids are leaving soccer because of LTPD
2) Kids and parents want scores and standings
3) Kids need to “learn how to lose”
4) We’re getting rid of competition and kids need to learn that competition is part of life
5) LTPD is just for the ”elite” player/LTPD is only concerned with the recreational player
6) LTPD is being ‘pushed’ by the OSA—and a bunch of academics that know nothing about soccer and are trying to tell parents what is good for their own kids

Let’s briefly discuss each of the above:

  1. Kids are leaving soccer because of LTPD

While some unhappy parents may be looking at other sport options for their child, the facts are actually as follows:  we have been losing kids in big numbers in recent years and the feedback is inevitably the same:  kids are pressured at too early an age and coaches and parents yell all the time. If winning and losing games at the age of 8 or 9 is why a parent chooses a sport for their son or daughter, it may be important to re-assess why children are involved in youth sports.  Kids want to have fun and “get better”.  We have tried to deliver that message but perhaps parents are not receiving the full message and our broader intent.  We will be working very hard to ensure we get the right information in the hands of parents so they can make informed decisions.

     2) Kids and parents want scores and standings
Yes, many parents and kids do typically want scores and standings. But that approach, while what parents know and are familiar with, has clearly not led to healthy results.  We have seen major drop-out rates in recreation and competitive soccer.  And we are simply not properly developing the majority of those youngsters who enjoy and actually have a passion and a skill for this sport.  Sure, some do make it, often despite the “system”, but most don’t. 
We don’t have “class rankings” in elementary schools, for example.  We introduce that when our youngsters are older and better able to understand competition and what it means. It makes sense to do the same in sports.
We need to do a whole lot better—and we will.

    3) Kids need to “learn how to lose”

Yes, kids need to learn how to lose.  But do we seriously think these lessons have to be taught the age of 8, 9, 10 or 11?  And who is doing the so-called “teaching” about losing—and what impact is it having on our kids?  Youngsters are naturally competitive and keep score in every game they play. Kids aren’t the problem.  Too often, parents and coaches are the problem.   There are many great volunteer coaches in our system and many thoughtful, supportive and engaged parents.  But enough parents and coaches with wonky priorities have wrecked things for the others.
Let’s let the kids keep score, but teach them the skills they need without fear of making mistakes and being screamed at for fear of losing a game and a chance at being “promoted”.  How will kids learn the skills they need in a sport like soccer if they are afraid to try things because of the adults around them?

  4) Kids need to learn that competition is part of life

Of course competition is a part of life. Players will be competing against each other at each practice session and each game from 6 years of age.  But we’re talking about soccer at the early ages where we will de-emphasize standings and there will be no promotion and relegation.  There will be plenty of competition and plenty of games and competition at the young ages—we just won’t focus on standings
If people are honest, the system in Ontario has, for years, been built on the backs of coaches poaching players and recruiting the biggest, fastest, oldest players they can.  Parents and coaches yell “kick it out, kick it out, get rid of the ball…” to alarmed children, all to tell them to get the ball up to the big, fast kid who can score and “win the game”.  This leads to placing their team high in the standings and being “promoted”.  But it’s not a real team when only a few players matter and skills are not being developed. 
Sadly, this poisonous cycle never stops. Surely no one truly believes that approach is healthy—or develops the skills of ALL young players? Are some kids more important than others?  Because under the old system, that’s what we had, a focus on a very few players, while other players sat, got little playing time and virtually no attention so they could improve. The result was lost confidence—and players lost to soccer. That certainly wasn’t “fun” for all the players.
There will still be a challenging competition structure of progression, but those youngsters who don’t make higher levels right away won’t be forgotten, as happened too often in the past.

 5) LTPD is just for the ”elite” player/LTPD is only concerned with the recreational player
In fact, LTPD is for both the elite players who aspire to a future in the game and also for the recreational player.  Recreational soccer is the backbone of our sport.  Kids wants to play for fun, fitness, healthy activity and because they like to compete.  LTPD will enhance this experience because more kids will now have the ability to play the game at a skill level that will make the experience fun. Yes, we will have to work hard to make sure coaching methods improve, so kids want to come to training sessions and are always learning new things and not standing around.  We have enhanced our coaching programs to help achieve exactly that result. But it’s a work in progress.
For those youngsters that aspire to a scholarship or playing for Canada, professionally or internationally, LTPD will at long last help many more of those youngsters to develop the touches and skills they need to be comfortable and creative on the ball—which is what sets most countries apart from Canada.

 6) LTPD is being pushed by a bunch of academics that know nothing about soccer and are trying to tell parents what is good for their kids
If critics of LTPD choose to ignore the science and research behind LTPD, fine.  Then just listen to the coaches around the globe, some of the best and brightest, who talk about why we need to focus on skills development and not winning games at the young ages.  This has been happening elsewhere for years already.  And if people don’t believe what is being said and practiced around the rest of the soccer world by coaches and players who know what they are talking about and are truly expert in this field, at least be aware that our own best Canadian players, like Diana Matheson and Dwayne De Rosario support this initiative one hundred per cent. And they are far from alone.
Let me be clear:  I repeat—kids are not the problem.  We adults have been, however, a huge problem and remain so.  Just because we have kept standings at the early ages for years doesn’t mean it was—or is—a good thing.  When we discover that something is unhealthy in our lives, we change it.  Every time.  That’s what we are doing now.
Will kids still compete?  A ton—and they should.  Will we lose some kids to other sports?  Maybe, though most all youth sports are moving in this direction, too, right across Canada.  Are we over-protecting our kids?  Hardly.  We’re not ridding the entire system of standings—just the young ages.  And that is, in part, to get away from the outdated approaches I described above while ensuring that ALL kids get a chance to fall in love and stay in love with our great sport.
Surely we aren’t relying on kids “losing a soccer game” at the age of 9 or 10 to teach them about disappointment, handling adversity, sportsmanship or competing?  Before we expect a student to apply for Law School—and possibly “fail” in their attempt—we make sure they have the basics down cold through years of study, training and proper support in the “system”.  That’s the least we should do with children in sport before we make them deal with things like “relegation”.
Why should a youth team be built around a handful of players while every other youngster waits their turn to play, develop and gain confidence? That’s what we’re fighting, and we’re not going to turn back now because some people are upset by change.  We all resist change.  But when change is about making for a healthier environment, we have to stay the course.  And we will.
It’s time to measure “success” differently.  If some people really and truly believe that a trophy for children based on “winning” at the age of 9 or 10 is more important than having fun and actually developing the skills needed to play the sport well, then clearly they will not support LTPD.  I understand that. But we hope you will give LTPD time.  We also hope that our OSA members that seem hesitant and fearful are not simply sticking with the “old” ways because it suits their purposes.
This is supposed to be about and for ALL our kids.  Not just a few, or the biggest and fastest, or those identified at the early ages while others are ignored.  For every young person that gets a scholarship or advances to play at the highest levels, there are probably 10 others, including late-bloomers, who never received the support, attention and nurturing they needed and deserved just as much as those who “made it”.  It’s time to be honest and change the system.  Too many kids have been missed who could have been outstanding players for Ontario and for Canada.  And too many kids who wanted to stay in the game have left because it simply wasn’t fun any more and opportunities to play at an elite level are scarce as players get older.  We can ignore it or pretend it’s not true, but the research is clear on that.
We are trying to listen and be responsive to concerns that some people have.  That said, it’s about time we shifted focus in Ontario.  And we’re doing exactly that.  We won’t be perfect as we make this transition. We’ll make mistakes. But it will be because we are trying to do everything we can to help more kids, not fewer.