Friday, 15 January 2016

Financial Elitism in Youth Sport

At what point does expense become a barrier to participation in youth sports? I have been tackling this one for a number of years.  The idea that more money has a cause effect relationship on athletic performance is an idea worth talking about.  In Alberta, our provincial ski team fees have been way above most other provinces over the past number of years, with a program organized and delivered by our national training centre in Canmore.  Despite this, Alberta as a jurisdiction has had a downward trend in provincial rankings over the past 6 years; #1 in 2010, #4 in 2015.  Alberta was once the powerhouse in Canada in terms of producing high performing athletes, dominating world junior championships teams for a good number of years.  Times change.

This notion that paying higher fees leads to improved performance is in many ways false.  Unless you are independently wealthy or are in the top 10% of income earners, paying higher fees is not a great thing in a number of important ways:
- it forces families to opt out earlier than they might, because parents need to get 2nd and 3rd  jobs in order to afford the travel, coaching fees, wax fees, club fees, team fees, equipment expenses, etc.
- it causes stress many average income families - should you have to choose between healthy meals and sending your child to Ottawa for Easterns?
- it creates a culture of excess where teams of waxers expenses are covered along with coaches, etc. Why is it that parents can't be doing this important jobs who might be travelling there anyway.
- it creates a barrier for anyone not working with a greater than average income.

It is a reality that at a certain point participating in competitive skiing becomes out of reach for average income families.  But why do clubs and provincial sport organizations need to operate in a way that makes it extremely difficult for the average family to stay involved.

I've just started a new job as an Assistant Principal at an elementary school.  Its work I love.  Before I got the position I had planned to start a new ski club in Canmore that targeted lower income families because for these families, even though they live in a town where world cup and national level events are held regularly, cross country skiing is completely out of reach.  My plan was to work with the local catholic school and reach out to all of their new Canadian students many of whose parents work in the service sector in our tourist town for minimum wage. I hope once I am settled into my role I can pick that work up again, because there are tons of kids who will never get the chance to ski because the costs is completely out of reach.  There are some grants available - kidsport, jumpstart - but after 10 years old, these grants don't begin to cover a small portion of the actual expense of participating in cross country skiing.

Its all about elitism.  What role does financial elitism play in the current reality of performance levels of Alberta athletes at nationals?  You see it all the time, people shaking their heads wondering why kids are dropping out at 13 or 14.  Or you hear the justification of high expenses in statements like 'attrition is normal'.

Attrition isn't normal.  Attrition is a signal that things aren't going well.  As coaches we need to be asking ourselves, what responsibility do we have to create a program that is accessible for 90% of the club, instead of just for the 10% of top income earning families.  Financial elitism is having a negative effect on participation in cross country skiing.  Not for the financial elite, but for average income earning families.

What can we do?  Well, in my role as Alberta Ski Team Director, I have been advocating for $0 fees for participation in the program for the 2016-17 competition year.  The idea is to create a program that uses just the funding that we get from the provincial government, which although is being reduced by 25% for the 2016-17 year due to a recession in our provincial economy, is still a substantial amount of money targeted at athlete development by our provincial government.  Participating in the Alberta Ski Team should be a benefit not a burden to the average family.  It may be that we have to charge families something, but the goal is to reduce fees by over 80%.

My perspective is shaped by the fact that my own children have won national, western, and eastern Canadian and provincial championships.  I will be travelling to Romania next week to cheer on my son, @matt_strum who is competing in his third world junior biathlon championships.  I have a real sense of what it takes to make these things happen for your children, and I do this on an educator's salary, which is not substantial, and has required me to have 3 or 4 employers over a year just to make it all happen.  I have done this as many parents do - help your children live their passion and dreams.  But it is not easy, and I would say most average income families, would not be willing to do all the work it takes to pay for it all - i believe this contributes to high attrition starting at 13 or 14 and especially in high school.  Finding ways to make participating more accessible is important.

Is cross country skiing just for the financial elite? I'd say NO. Are there different ways of organizing sport to promote high level skill development and performance that don't require huge pay out of expenses for families?  I say YES.

I'm excited about my trip to Romania.  I will staying in a guest house adjacent to Dracula's Castle in Bran, Romania. Look for pictures of the Canadian team on my twitter feed @RoyStrum

Enjoy January