Field Hockey BC festival reflects LTAD philosophy

Monday, November 19, 2012

By: Rowan Grant

“Kids having fun. Parents having fun. Kids developing their skills. Parents witnessing growth. Parents supporting the game.”

These are some of the sights from Field Hockey BC’s U-13 Learn to Train Foundations Festival as described by executive director Mark Saunders. Most probably notice that he leaves out a number of scenes we normally see at “traditional” competitions: teams celebrating victories, players hoisting trophies and children coming to terms with defeat.

It is by design that Field Hockey BC excludes results and outcomes from the “festival”-style competitions it hosts for its younger athletes. Instead of keeping score, it bases its events around skill development, technical progression, fun and participation. These principles stem from its implementation of Canadian Sport for Life’s Long-Term Athletic Development model, which states that an early stress on winning and competing does not support a child’s progression into a long-term athlete. Perhaps ironically, the CS4L-LTAD system has helped lead Field Hockey BC in becoming the most competitively advanced field hockey organization in Canada.

Field Hockey BC adopted the CS4L-LTAD model in 2006, which, according to Saunders, put it ahead of the other provincial field hockey organizations in terms of LTAD implementation. He says the organization took on the LTAD model (which it now refers to as LTFHD, short for Long-Term Field Hockey Development) “with the intent to create a more systematic approach to the development of the sport.” Based on the technical abilities and the competitive depth of its older players, it looks to be working.

When the organization first began measuring its development path against the CS4L-LTAD framework, it found its athletes were lacking technical skills in three LTAD stages: FUNdamentals, Learn to Train and Train to Train. While these kinds of “gap analyses” are normal in a sport’s introductory stages, Field Hockey BC believed this could be fixed by changing the nature of its competitions. Indeed, reshaping the way players think the game has helped develop a more team-oriented skill set among the players.

“What was significant over the course of the (festival) was how the more experienced players advanced their respective game play with a change of tactical focus away from the immediate goal mouth to bringing other teammates into the game, and in doing so, create a higher percentage of goal mouth opportunities and a greater number of correct touches on the ball” says Saunders. “Less developed athletes had more involvement than they otherwise may have had there been winners and losers.”

A firm believer in promoting the most appropriate kind of event for each developmental stage, Field Hockey BC also included a modified rule format, a modified field of play and a focus on six-aside mini-field hockey in the U-13 Festival.

Field Hockey BC has become an LTAD success story since implementing the model seven years ago. British Columbia field hockey players comprise 75 and 70 per cent of the senior national male and female teams respectively. More pertinent to the success of its non-competitive festivals, the junior national team selected 80 per cent of its players from B.C.

While supplying talented athletes to the national team is a primary goal, Field Hockey BC simultaneously aims to see Canada improve on the world scene. The past year has seen this goal accomplished, as both the men’s and women’s Canadian squads finished with silvers at the 2012 Pan American Junior Championship. This marks the strongest results in 27 and 15 years for the men and women respectively, and for the women, only the second silver medal placing ever. With these results, the first LTAD-trained cohort will be able to take the next competitive step by representing Canada in the World Junior Championships next year.

The organization’s skill-oriented, result-neutral events for young athletes play a large role in its success. Saunders believes it offers players a unique lens through which to view the game: “The athlete is being challenged to look at individual and collective technical progression instead of the result of the game,” he explains. “Creating opportunities is important, but what is vital is the progression to this outcome. ‘Winning,’ in this case, is the ability to execute the right things at the right time.”

Coaches also play an important role in implementing this kind of competitive philosophy. Saunders describes LTFHD as “coach led,” citing coach education, training and mentorship as essential components. Coaches are made aware of the festival’s purpose of achieving more correct touches over scoring more goals, and according to Saunders, their feedback on the nature of these events has been positive.

But what about the players? Critics of deemphasizing results say kids aren’t motivated to compete when no one’s keeping score. While Saunders acknowledges “an inherent desire to achieve a score-based win” exists in sport, he says players have responded positively to the LTAD system because of its player-based nature.

“What has been evident in our staging of a festival format at both the Learn to Train and Train to Train stages of development is the recognition from the athletes themselves that the program environment is very much ‘athlete centred’ with their best interests at the core,” says Saunders. “Both the coaches and the athletes commented on the high competitive standard achieved.”

Field Hockey BC’s registration numbers speak for themselves: in addition to a more skilled and competitively deeper player pool, recent years have seen the organization achieve a higher retention rate for players aged 13 to 18. Demand for year-round programming has also increased, and in 2011, a full-time National Junior Team Program was established.

“Did we ‘win’ with a festival format?” Saunders asks himself. “A resounding ‘yes we did,’ and we did it without a score being registered.”