Fewer active children means fewer candidates to enter the Olympic stream
Posted by Dean Holden at January 14th, 2014
by Cam Cole, 26 October 2012
VANCOUVER — At the tip of the Canadian Olympic pyramid, where our elite athletes perform, they can feel the foundation crumbling beneath them.
The base of the pyramid is narrowing, and the statistical probability is that the peak will sink lower. Enrollment in grassroots sports programs is shrinking. There are fewer and fewer active children and so, logically — though it’s far from the worst consequence of this trend — fewer candidates to enter the Olympic stream.
What’s it to you?
Well, for starters, there’s a pretty good chance your kid is fat, or is going to be, and you won’t know what to do about it.
For the first time in modern history, North American children — maybe yours among them — are not expected to live as long as their parents, and it’s no great mystery why that is.
It’s because at the age where the vast majority of kids once headed outdoors to play games, yours will be awkward and uncomfortable — having spent the early formative years being babysat by an electronic screen of one kind or another — and will either show no interest in physical activity or will be discouraged and give it up easily.
By age 12, he or she and hundreds of thousands like them will have grown obese and indolent, and the health care system one day will shudder and perhaps collapse under their weight: trying to undo problems that 10 minutes a day as a toddler might have prevented.
Too harsh, you think? Too preachy? You’re active, and by God, your kids will be, too? Fine, turn the page. Perhaps this isn’t for you.
But there’s a reason the message, albeit in much gentler terms, is starting to appear in advertising campaigns on both sides of the border: in Canada, with help from Steve Nash and Vincent Lecavalier and others donating their services via a movement called Active For Life, and in the U.S., through a Nike-generated initiative called Designed To Move.
It’s not ParticipACTION, circa 1970s. That was aimed at lazy adults, making us feel guilty about being 25 and in worse shape than a 65-year-old Swede. This one is aimed at the child — via the mom– if not exactly in the womb, then not long after.
Gentler, the videos and TV commercials are, because parents don’t like to be bludgeoned. But they do need help, maybe especially the non-sporty ones who can see the sense of the message but don’t know where to begin.
In Canada, the same ultra-private B2ten organization that successfully facilitated the efforts of a number of medal winners at the Vancouver and London Olympics with financial and technical support came to realize that the elite-athlete pool is in grave danger of having a stunted feeder system.
“After the Vancouver Games — because B2ten originally wasn’t supposed to exist beyond 2010 — we had a debriefing, and basically started looking at what we’d done,” says Richard Monette, a Banff-based sports psychology consultant and one of the thinkers behind B2ten’s evolution into grassroots investment.
“And we asked: do medals make a difference for Canada — do they really affect the country? And we decided yes, they do, but they will really only have an impact if it gets kids into sport.
“Because by that time, it was pretty clear to us. You don’t need to dig very deep to realize that (a) kids are not very fit any more and (b) they don’t participate in sports. They’re non-active.”
Not surprisingly, the London Olympics organizers saw the same scientific data. The 2012 Games’ hopeful motto was “Inspire A Generation.”
The next question: how to achieve it?
“We thought, this could be a huge black hole into which we could put millions and millions and not have an impact,” Monette said. “So we applied the same thinking for this system that we did with athletes. We identified talent. We found an organization in Victoria called Canadian Sport For Life. And one key element of what they’re doing is something called physical literacy.
“The concept we’re selling is that if you want your kid to be successful — not just in sports, but in school, in life — one of the elements you need to work on is physical literacy. It’s very basic: the skills that you learn early, you tend to do for life.”
From that starting point — the idea of children learning movement and basic physical skills in the same time frame as they acquire language — Monette put the pieces of the Active For Life concept together, and started up its website (activeforlife.ca) in electronic magazine form to be interactive for parents, especially moms.
I wish these tools had been available when my own kids were young. The website is a blast — helpful, funny and simple to use. In one video commercial, Lecavalier lays a length of rope down on the grass in a playground and four children (one of them his own daughter) walk it like a tightrope, a game designed to improve balance.
The site is full of simple games to play involving movement and skill development that don’t feel like lessons.
“Part of the reason we’re in it is there’s a social value, obviously, in trying to empower young people to get into sports and exercise,” says Scott Livingston, a former strength and conditioning coach and athletic therapist with the Montreal Canadiens, now devoting a lot of time to his B2ten athletes.
“But the other side is, a lot of these athletes have specialized too early in their lives, they don’t have good fundamentals, and so by the time they start getting into the highest level, they’re breaking down because they don’t have the foundation.”
J.D. Miller, one of B2ten’s co-founders in 2005 (with freestyle skier Jenn Heil and her coach, Dominic Gauthier) pointed out that all but one of the Canadian medal winners at the Vancouver Olympics started out in a different sport.
“Helen Upperton was on the junior national team in soccer, became a track athlete, injured her leg at some point, and then became a bobsled pilot,” said Miller.
“Jennifer Heil was a terrific competitive swimmer, but at 12 years old and five-foot-nothing, she realized she wasn’t going to the Olympics, which was her dream — and she said, ‘I’m not giving up my dream’ so she took up freestyle skiing. (Moguls gold medalist) Alex Bilodeau was a trampolinist ….”
“I coach hockey in Banff, and we’ve got 90 players in the entire hockey association, we’re very small,” said Monette. “So last year I started coaching novice, and of course I applied all the concepts of physical literacy in my coaching, and honestly, the old-fashioned hockey guys thought I was crazy.
“But here’s what’s really cool: four of our kids were asked to play on a select team, four out of 12. So two decided to go, and we’re sitting with fans from all these towns — from Calgary and everything — and the two kids from Banff are amongst the best skaters on the team.
“And this dad turns to me, and says, ‘Your kids, do they do power skating?’ I said, ‘Well, they did a little bit.’ And he goes through his son’s schedule, and it’s basically hockey, power skating, hockey, power skating … And I go through the schedule of our two kids on the team and I said, ‘Well, Friday they have a half-day at school and they snowboard, and they’ve got basketball on Tuesday and they swim on Monday.’ And he says, ‘Are you telling me these kids don’t skate all the time?’ And I say, ‘No, they’re good skaters because they don’t just skate. Don’t get me wrong, our practices are high-tempo, it’s all about skills. But when they don’t skate, they’re doing something else that makes them stronger skaters.’
“So those are the two sides of physical literacy. It is not for jocks only. It may get you to have more (elite) athletes, but if the quote-unquote downside is that your kid never gets to be an athlete but he’s healthier because he’s active for life …”
Not such a bad tradeoff.
Category: athleticism, Canadian Sport 4 Life, coaching culture, diversification, education, evaluation, expertise, fundamental movement skills, interview, leadership, learning, LTAD, olympics, parents, philosophy, physical literacy, play, practices, recommended website, skill acquisition, specialization, sporting culture, talent, talent ID, talent selection