FORGING A GAME CHANGE YOUTH SPORT MODEL | OUR EXPERIENCES
Youth sport is in a spot of trouble. Kids are leaving sport earlier and staying out of it (see some statistics here - what is telling is how low the bar is to get counted as participating) . Recent commercials from the Aspen Institute called, ‘Don’t Retire Kid’, coupled with the Project Play initiative, hammer that message home.
Evidently, something needs to change.
Game Change has been aware of the challenges in youth sport, in a professional context, but now we have our own kids. And those kids are getting tossed into the youth sports meat grinder. We had heard the horror stories from friends and colleagues and seen a small sample of it personally. There was really very little choice; Game Change needed to try something. Not to do something would be an act of malpractice.
To that end, nearly two years ago Game Change made a bet that we could help change the approach, at the very least, locally.
We chose (no surprise to anyone) hockey. Our kids play the sport, we understand it and we know people in the game that know more than we do. Our goal was to try and shift the paradigm and actually follow the recommendations made by the governing sport bodies, academics and experts from around the world and build a program that:
Is not predicated on skill level - in other words, don’t create a program that tilts everything to the elite player
Focuses on skill development
Reduces focus on competitive outcomes/rankings
Reduces travel and days at the rink, but still increases practice time
Use sport as a platform for personal development
Make it fun but challenging
Make kids good at 18 not 8
Our initial approach was to engage with a local youth hockey association and work with them to establish a pilot initiative within their current construct and see if we could make this approach work. A lot of our approach was driven by a gentleman out of Toronto who we were put in contact with named Rick Ferroni. Rick is running a cutting edge program that continues to grow in one of the most ass backwards youth hockey leagues on the planet, the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL).
A quick aside. Canada has seen its share of players in the NHL continue to fall, the Canadian Hockey League continues to see the selection of its athletes diminish at the NHL draft, Canadian dominance at the elite junior level is waning and worst of all young men/boys flee the game. Hockey Canada is in the midst of pulling a Blackberry and seems oblivious to it. Where does the problem start? Well, if you want to point fingers, a safe place to start is the GTHL, but that is a story for another day..
Coming back on point, the Game Change approach really is not radical. We are based in the United States. Our approach with the local hockey association, was to take a different development angle and simply meet and in some cases exceed the expectations laid out by USA Hockey. USA Hockey has a development model called the ADM (athlete development model) which they recommend everyone adhere to. Unfortunately, the local association was unreceptive. Consequently, our team and some forward thinking local parents founded Connecticut GC (not ‘Game Change’, Grit and Courage).
The blowback from this decision was bracing. To a certain extent, I can understand these organizations' frustrations with our initiative. However, the blowback became highly personal and the focus on what we were trying to do and why became irrelevant. Two things stood out. First, the very organizations that exist to promote the adoption of the ADM (in our case the CHC and USA Hockey) were used as blunt instruments to stop our organization from coming into existence instead of furthering it. This included, cease and desist letters and veiled threats to have parents banned from becoming coaches.
Second, parents and kids presented with the opportunity could not make a personal development decisions in a rational way. The development decision became emotional. In short, the process was highly instructive on why change in youth sport (and change in many environments) is tough. Inertia, entrenched interests and a perceived arm’s race for success - now - color the environment. Moreover, those interested in a different path are demonized for pursuing change (personally, I have been threatened with physical violence, accused of committing ‘social suicide’, a massive money grab, trying to build an elite program, cheating, etc.). Parents who made the decision to participate also faced significant static for deviating from the norm.
In short, this is obviously a sanitized (and one sided) version of what went down. It would be easy to rail against the perceived injustices and misconceptions we suffered in launching Connecticut GC, it would also be idiotic not to acknowledge that many didn’t like how we elected to move forward. That being said, sometimes we need to agree to disagree and move on.
So what’s my point? The point is our decision to pursue a development model that adheres to best practices at the youth sport level was significantly harder than it should have been. The organizations, infrastructure and employees who are supposed to be advocates for change and appropriate development either don’t have the ability, mandate, teeth or the stomach to execute the change they wish/want to see.
In other words, if parents and governing entities want to see real change they are going to need to demand it, not ask for it. They are going to need to implement it and require adherence. They must also acquire raincoats and helmets in order to deal with the tsunami of shit that sprays back at them. It can be done (see this story in New Zealand about North Harbour Rugby). Our story is a microcosm of how difficult the process can be, but again, it also shows it can be done.
To that end, we have been uncompromising in our development philosophy, namely :
How do we make kids better hockey players at 18, not 8?
How do we use hockey to build awesome humans?
How do we keep the process fun and manageable for kids and families?
We’re a work in progress. We’ll keep you updated as we move ahead.