Oakville handshakeThe following article is sourced from the Canadian Sport for Life and offers a case study view of how to implement the Long-Term Athlete Development model efficiently and effectively. Paul Varian, former Executive Director of the Oakville Soccer Club, outlines that it’s rather straightforward if you put the right things and the right people in place! We hope you enjoy this article as much as we did!

By: Paul Varian

It’s funny; the movement of athlete development to Canadian Sport For Life (CS4L)-driven pathways is being touted by some as change management of the highest order. But is it really that difficult? Is the head-shaking fear of this change genuinely worthy or just fear-mongering from people who simply don’t want it?

One thing is clear to me. If you genuinely want to implement CS4L, if you have the right things in place, it can be done relatively straightforwardly.

I was the Executive Director of Oakville Soccer Club when soccer’s version of CS4L’s Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) was implemented there. Oakville Soccer Club is the largest soccer club in North America and the largest sports club of any kind in Canada. Over 19,000 registrants, mostly kids, play soccer through a large skew of club programs that range from a huge youth house league, to technically-focused youth development programs, to huff-and-puff adult recreational leagues. Management of the club is complex and challenging. Driving change can be positively daunting.

However, Oakville Soccer Club was able to move from LTPD as no more than a concept to full implementation over a relatively short period of time from 2010 to 2013. How did they do it so quickly across such a large, complex program base? What can we learn from it?

Here are the top 10 lessons that I learnt from the Oakville SC experience, and the reasons I believe the club made its implementation of LTPD a success, so quickly.

1) Make CS4L knowledge a required competency at Board level

It all starts at the top. And in community sports clubs, that means the Board of Directors. At Oakville SC, the Board made familiarity with LTPD part of the list of competencies required of incoming Board members. This added to the tacit knowledge-base of the Board, especially when the Technical Director was presenting. But it also sent a message that LTPD was important to the club at the highest level, and had a place in the Boardroom.

2) Embed CS4L in your strategic planning

Oakville SC developed a new five-year strategic plan in 2010. Central to it were technical goals that were inherently LTPD-driven. Doing this enshrined LTPD in the very planning fabric of the club. It meant if you were focused on implementing the club’s agreed-upon strategic goals, you were automatically supporting LTPD (even if you didn’t know it). It also secured a long-term commitment to LTPD and handed a clear mandate to management to drive technical investment in this direction.

3) Ensure your technical leader is a genuine CS4L proponent

Oakville SC recruited a new Technical Director in the fall of 2010, as its strategic plan was nearing completion. The club selected former national team captain Jason deVos to spearhead its $1.5m annual technical investment in its player base.

Some deemed deVos an inappropriate appointment due to his limited coaching experience and qualifications at the time. But deVos exhibited the precise skills the club needed in its Technical Director then. He was a demonstrated, passionate supporter of LTPD, and his athletic and leadership resumΓ© was beyond reproach. Moreover, he could clearly and articulately communicate to regular parents the need to move to this development framework. And his words were loaded with the credibility that a veteran national team captain brings. He was the perfect spearhead for technical change.

No, Oakville SC didn’t bring in DeVos to coach. He was brought in to lead change and establish crucial technical endorsement of the club’s new technical direction around LTPD. Without this leadership that fully supported and drove LTPD, it would have been difficult for the club to effect the change.

4) Embed CS4L in technical planning and coach education

My first request of deVos after he joined was to develop a long-term technical development plan for the club, with LTPD firmly at the core. “I don’t want session plans and coaching drills,” I said. “I need a pathway that shows parents and non-soccer people how kids are developed in the game of soccer at Oakville SC.”

The resultant plan deVos developed in 2011 is often referred to as a best practice in youth soccer development planning in Canada. But it’s really not that revolutionary or complicated. The plan merely shows in simple English how players move from one developmental stage to the next, outlining the rationale and benefits to the player. But its effectiveness is that it is simple, without getting into technical program detail. It’s also multi-faceted, addressing players, coaches, officials and competition reform (a crucial component of any system of athlete development).

5) Break down CS4L into easy-to-understand benefits

The problem with many athlete development plans is that they are too technical, using terminology and acronyms that regular parents don’t understand. They do a terrible job explaining sport development to non-sport people (who often pay for it all, especially in amateur youth sports).

Oakville SC referenced LTPD in their technical development plan, but didn’t delve into too much detail. Specific LTPD stages weren’t even mentioned. Instead, the plan used very simple language that soccer parents understood and related to. “Intro And Fun”, “Teach Them To Play”, “Soccer For Life” – self-explanatory terms that clearly showed parents what the goal of each phase of their child’s development was and why. The plan followed the LTPD framework, but it was communicated in a simpler way that parents easily understood and bought into.

6) Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Once the club’s technical development plan was built, the job of communicating it clearly and rigorously to the club’s parent base became a high priority.

A tagline for the club – “Advancing Every Player” – was introduced, enshrining the core belief of LTPD into the Oakville SC brand. And rather than simply “putting the plan out there”, the club developed a full, multi-faceted communications plan over several months in Fall 2011 to promote it and its intrinsic LTPD principles. It included town hall meetings, web-based presentations lodged on YouTube, direct email letters, you name it.

Again, in communications the club focused on benefits, not program mechanics. They didn’t talk about FUNdamentals (stage two of the seven-stage pathway), but spoke about how children will have an enjoyable soccer experience, get to touch the ball a lot and won’t be embarrassed or humiliated for making a mistake. There was no mention of Learn to Train (stage three), but plenty about teaching the kids the skills of the game so they could enjoy it into the future and maybe play at a higher level.

The key is to focus on the benefits of CS4L, not CS4L itself. The benefits allow our kids to grow and be better people through sport. So why not focus on that? What parent wouldn’t agree with it? At Oakville SC, few didn’t.

Was it a lot of work? Yes. Was it challenging at times to answer question after question, often exactly the same as the last? Sometimes. Was it worth it? Unquestionably.

Without it, the questions would have come anyway. But later, when the changes hit the soccer fields – and we knew questions then would be harder to answer and possibly laced with anger and discontent.

So get ahead of your communication on any CS4L implementation plan. It will undoubtedly be the difference between acceptance and rejection by parents when it reaches your sport programs.

7) Ensure you have a strong relationship with your facilities partners

It varies for every sport. But for soccer, early stage LTPD really impacts facilities. Field sizes must be redrawn to allow for smaller fields and smaller-sided games. Smaller goals are needed. Sometimes the rental patterns of facilities can’t continue as before. To manage it effectively, you need strong facilities partners and a trusting relationship with your local municipality.

At Oakville SC, we were lucky. The Town of Oakville believed in sport as an agent to deliver important civic mandates around recreation, wellness and physical activity. They also believed in working through local sport operators to get it done. For soccer, they looked heavily to Oakville SC as their main partner, and this was a responsibility and privilege the club took very seriously.

The mutual respect for the partnership meant that when it came time to sit down with the Town of Oakville and explain what needed to be done to move to LTPD, they answered the bell majestically. Incredibly, the Town of Oakville converted all of their soccer fields for LTPD use within 18 months; a feat that I’m told some other municipalities say cannot be done.

The operations team at Oakville SC also did an incredible job here in presenting exactly what was needed and communicating the urgency of action to municipal staff. But without the commitment and responsiveness from the Town of Oakville, LTPD would have been very difficult to execute. And certainly a lot slower.

So nurture your relationship with your municipality. Acknowledge their efforts and commitment to your club whenever you get a chance. Because when a big ask like this comes along, their support can be a game-changer.

8) Just do it!

Moving to CS4L is a daunting prospect when you first look at it. But too often in amateur sport, we become experts in finding excuses for not getting important things done, or just delaying them. There are loads of reasons why CS4L implementation is challenging. But none justify its abandonment. If we are serious about unleashing sport to make our kids the best people they can be, we must just get on with it, regardless of how hard it may be.

At Oakville SC, this started with determined resolve at the top; from the Board of Directors in terms of what they asked management to do, and the empowerment they bestowed upon them to do it. From there, it’s a matter of constantly making sure the process keeps moving forward every day. Whether it’s through major milestones in a strategic plan or small tasks like answering yet another questioning email from a parent, the process must rumble on. And it is up to you to ensure it does!

9) Talk to the kids

Too often, the very beneficiaries in all this – the kids – are ignored. Oakville SC found that the very simple process of surveying youth player satisfaction levels in 2012 produced very clear endorsements of its technical direction and LTPD at large.

Since then, the Ontario Soccer Association has undertaken broader, province-wide research directly with young soccer players that further validates the direction. So look to your governing body for support and leadership in case they have information you can use.

But failing that, just ask the kids yourself. You’ll find they’ll fully support your CS4L changes – for the very reasons the framework was developed in the first place. And the honesty in their answers will be hard to argue with.

10) Measure progress and promote success

At Oakville SC, as each step in the process was completed, it was communicated and celebrated. Whether it was at an AGM presentation, a pre-season parent orientation, a sport conference presentation or through the club’s own marketing means, the club made a conscious effort to show that the direction to LTPD was underway and working.

The club surveyed parents and issued results that endorsed change (such as one that showed only 10% of parents at the club didn’t agree with the principles behind LTPD). They promoted the club’s technical development plan externally in the Canadian soccer community and encouraged other clubs to copy it. (One day, the Canadian national team coach contacted me asking for a copy of it.) The club spoke at its governing body’s conferences. They used the plan to support the OSA’s modernization of its competition structure to become LTPD-focused. Everywhere they could, they showed validation of LTPD and their embracing of it as a club. And finally, they built an evaluation framework for the Board of Directors that quantified where the technical development plan was being effective, and where it still needed work.

I won’t deny it. There are still OPDL sceptics in Ontario soccer and probably at Oakville SC as well. And there are probably parts of Oakville SC’s program base where LTPD still needs better implementation.

But the idea that “it simply can’t be done” is just nonsense. It can be done. It is being done. And if you have the conviction, planned ambition and support from key leadership and partners, it will be done.

The largest sports club in the country was able to do it from concept to completion within three years. You can do it, too. It’s just a question of whether you really want to.

(Photos courtesy of Oakville Soccer Club)

Paul Varian

Paul Varian net_sizedPaul Varian is Principal of Capitis Consulting, a sports management consultancy based in Ontario, and a Chartered Director. He was Executive Director of Oakville Soccer Club, the largest soccer club in North America, from June 2010 to January 2013. Prior to this, he was President & CEO of Sport BC in the period building up to and during the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, and Chief Executive of the Irish (Field) Hockey Association from 2004 to 2007.

For more information about the Oakville Soccer Club’s LTPD and motto “Advancing Every Player”, please visit their website:

Source: Steve Nash Youth Basketball Blog http://ift.tt/1AwOaiz
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