Saturday, 14 February 2015

Elitism in Youth Sport...ideas on leaving it for the senior age group

Whatever sport you're involved with, you've probably seen it happen lots.  The ever increasing need at younger and younger ages to specialize, to pay for high priced coaching, to travel farther and farther afield for competition weekends, to purchase the most expensive equipment, and in the case of cross country ski racing to apply the glide waxes that are used at the world cup and olympic levels.  Where does the insanity stop?  It stops for many families when it just becomes out of reach for them financially.  I know of many families who have decided to have their children do some thing else because cross country skiing or whatever sport, has just become too expensive.  Of course there are many families who have deep pockets and the question isnt 'can they afford it', but simply 'why not'?  The bigger issue of course is not financial, but ethical - asking the question, what is most developmentally appropriate?

There is another type of elitism that exists, one I saw modeled this past couple of days at Calgary City Teachers Convention.  It is an elitism that is evidenced by coaches who give more attention to those athletes that who demonstrate quicker technical skill acquisition.  This one really irks me because it represents a coach's belief that some kids are more deserving of attention than another simply because they can learn a motor skill faster.  What I witnessed was a disturbing example of coaches not taking the time to teach athletes how to perform a skill; instead what I witnessed was increased opportunity to be involved and receive instruction/feedback based on the athlete's predisposed natural athletic ability. This is disturbing because it underpins the coach's beliefs that they are able to use their crystal ball to predict which athletes are going to be worth their time and effort as a coach to invest in.  This conduct represents all that was wrong with school based physical education and community sport twenty years ago and has no place in youth sport in 2015.

It surprises me that at every Alberta Cup cross country ski race, coaches have the need to decide and debate whether youth 14 years of age and younger should be applying pure fluoro, or high flouro, or other glide waxes meant for older athletes, to these young athlete's skis.  Really, there is a debate over this topic at every provincial level race.  Why?  The answer is elitism.  Coaches of some clubs feel its important to give their athletes the advantage of faster glide waxes.  But really, is that what should be making the difference at 12 or 13 years of age in a ski race? No!  what should be making the difference is physical fitness and technical ski ability.  The fastest skiers should be the ones who have worked the hardest not the ones whose parents are willing to pay $30 a race day for fast skis.  Is it ok, to buy your way to the top of the results list?  is that really what is important for youth sport?

Another example of elitism in youth cross country ski racing in Alberta and elsewhere is the practice of purchasing a race licence for your 10 or 12 year old.  In Canada, athletes who race at national championships need a race licence from the national sport organization.  This licence facilitates assigning Canada Points List points for each race an athlete goes in.  Then the CPL points are used to seed athletes in mass start races or individual start races.  For athletes competing at nationals this is appropriate and needed.  There are many families and clubs who purchase a CCC race licence for their athletes who are younger than 15.  These clubs and families purchase their race licence for the 10 or 12 year old not because they plan to go to nationals but simply so that they get preferred seading at races.  Essentially, this is blatantly buying your way to the front of the starting group.  Is this really what we want to teach kids?  you can buy your way to the front of the line.  I say no!  This is a wrong message to give kids, and it is a message that reinforces an elitist orientation for youth participation in sport.  There is no place for a provincial sport organization to be supporting this type of elitism.  As a community, we need to insist that elitist structures like buying your child's position at the start of the mass start group, is not acceptable practice.  Luckily at two of three of our Alberta Cup race weekends the host clubs have insisted that CCC race licences for midgets and younger will not buy them a position at the front of mass start groupings or at the back of the the individual start groupings.

Elitism has no place in youth sports.  It is the product of coaches creating modified versions of the adult form of sport.  Adult sport in cross country is elitist and at that level is totally appropriate.  If you want to be the best in the world, you've got to do all the things that you need to to become the best in the world.  For youth, elitism is confusing, is unfair to children and is a negative influence on continued participation and engagement of our young skiers in our great sport.

I'm currently exploring possibilities of increasing opportunities for new Canadians to be engaged with our sport in our community.  Some exciting things are cooking - and I am happy to be one of the chefs.

I'm heading out to the trails now to enjoy an hour or so of pure delight - skiing gives me great joy.

Roy Strum
Canmore, AB


  1. Great article. I was skiing for BSF until it became unaffordable. Planning on training alone.

    1. Hi Riley - thanks for your comments - it is a real concern - and the bigger question of course is - is there another way? I like to think there is.

  2. If skiers win due to having superior wax it is bad for them as well. They will believe they are better skiers than they actually are. Some athletes become complacent if they win too easily and this is bad for their development.