The costs of an active Canadian child

On a frigid winter night, Sam Anderson trekked across the University of Victoria campus, headed for the blazing lights igniting the black sky. Approaching the labyrinth of interlocking athletic fields—a Rubik’s cube configuration of freshly mowed lawn, menacing goal posts, and end zones—the constant scuffing sound of cleat against turf rumbled though the wind, interrupted by occasional cheers or yells from nearby soccer and field hockey matches.

Anderson, a third-year geography student, looked worried. Any amount of wind would be problematic for his ultimate Frisbee team. Launching the plastic disc directly into gusts of frosty air challenges even the strongest players. Anderson knew he’d have to draw on his fundamental sport skills to win the game.

He says he’d rather possess multiple sport skills, like jockeying, sprinting, jumping, and pivoting, than only those related to ultimate Frisbee. He credits his parents.

“They put me in a whole bunch of sports: baseball, soccer, hockey, and lacrosse, a bit of everything. Having the knowledge and experience from each sport helps you grow as a kid, keeps you active, because you know how to do the skills properly,” says Anderson. He realizes not every child gets the chance to be active from an early age and develop strong sport skills. Chances are, his ultimate teammates were the fortunate few children participating in multiple sports as kids. Today’s children may not be as lucky.

The funding for Canadian sports currently looks like a static teeter-totter. Child, youth, and developmental programs remain underfunded, while high-performance athletes gunning for Olympic results have multiple funding channels available. The majority of obtainable yearly funding from Sport Canada, a federal branch of the Department of Canadian Heritage, goes to National Sport Organizations (NSOs), which focus primarily on Olympic and international results. While Canada has performed significantly better on the international stage of late, childhood inactivity is on the rise.

Last year, only seven per cent of Canadian children reached the daily physical activity requirement of one hour of exercise per day, as reported in a 2012 report published by Active Healthy Kids Canada, with data provided by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute (CHEO). CHEO ranks in the top six per cent of all research institutions world-wide. The report asks, “Is active play extinct?”

Play may not yet be extinct, but low funding does nothing to revive the act of childhood play. Experts from both youth coaching and childhood obesity sectors believe the solution to inactivity lies with education. Without education reform (which can only happen when funds allow), they fear Canada’s ongoing obesity epidemic will accelerate. Likewise, the pool of Olympic athletes will shrink as fewer children are exposed to sport.

The leader of change

Founded in 2005, Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) works federally to improve sport and physical activity, integrating the education, health, and recreation sectors with NSOs.

Established by a group of individuals that includes Richard Way and Istvan Balyi, Canadian Sport for Life builds its message on the foundations of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD), a seven-stage competition and development model for all Canadians, supporting training, competition and, recovery, based on developmental age. Balyi authored the first edition of LTAD in 2005.

The seven stages—Active Start, FUNdamentals, Learn to Train, Train to Train, Train to Compete, Train to Win, and Active for Life—span birth to passing, a radical approach to athlete development. A child can begin movement training before their first birthday and stay with the model their entire life, growing with the sport, or sports, of their choosing.

“LTAD started when Istvan was working with some of the very best athletes in Canada and they couldn’t carry out fundamental movement skills,” says Way, who competed in nine luge World Championships and sat as the Director of Sport for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games bid.

Balyi, who first spearheaded LTAD, knows fundamental movement and fundamental sport skills need to be introduced early. “Catch the kids young. Provide them the skills. They will enjoy movement and they will be active.”

Way agrees. “The first three stages are really important in the development of physical literacy.” The stages tout physical literacy above all else. Active Start (ages 0–6) introduces unstructured play, while developing agility, balance, coordination and speed. The FUNdamentals stage (ages 6–9) requires a structured environment with multi-sport exposure. Learn to Train (ages 8–12) introduces sport-specific skills.

The physical literacy concept could not be simpler. Children must learn to move properly in preschool and elementary school, so they not only enjoy being active, but also possess the movement skills needed to stay active. “Physical literacy should be considered like literacy or numeracy, in that they are basic building blocks to set up a foundation for a child’s success in life,” says Way. From Canadian Sport for Life’s perspective, basic sport literacy needs a firmer footing in schools.

Changing the structure

From afar, Canada appears to have a strong sporting landscape. Canadian Sport for Life’s LTAD plan is fully recognized by Sport Canada as a national standard for development planning.

“All NSOs have plans in place and are now implementing them nationally,” says Way. The plans set target achievements for LTAD stages, complete with a programming guide for each, a clear competition frame for high-performance athletes, and coaching models. “We do exceptionally well as a country. [. . .] The only way to sustain that is developing a system underneath the ‘finishing school,’” adds Way, who refers to high-performance training as “finishing school,” reserved for the few athletes reaching Olympic levels.

Changing the system Way references presents a logistics challenge, as NSOs weren’t always in the business of athlete direction. “NSOs started as national sport governing bodies. They set common rules for competition at the national level. Now, they’ve moved from governing bodies to sport organizations. Going to the Olympics and representing Canada is something they’re comfortable with and highly funded for. When you start to get into the discussion of LTAD and sport for life, this is a new way of thinking about their role. They’re still growing into that,” says Way.

Way and Balyi would like to see education as a top priority for overall NSO structure.

Typically, sport education focuses on athlete development, forgetting the obesity epidemic. In five years, Canadian Sport for Life hopes to have already changed this.

Support for physical literacy

Another national group shares Canadian Sport for Life’s goals. B2Ten, a privately financed charitable organization, began as a funding stream for Olympic-level Canadian athletes. Since founding in 2005, 18 B2Ten athletes have earned medals in Olympic Games. In 2011, B2Ten realized childhood physical activity rates were dwindling. Without future athletes to sponsor, their existence would be unnecessary. Impressed with LTAD and the Active for Life approach, they partnered with Canadian Sport for Life.

Soon, activeforlife.ca launched, becoming Canada’s first online magazine for physical literacy development and the Active for Life mindset. Editor-in-Chief Richard Monette, a parent and coach himself, promises parents and educators will find “Education, inspiration and resources on how to help their kids become physically literate and successful in life.”

Activeforlife.ca admits website funding stems from an organization craving high-performance success, but Monette stresses that an athlete can’t become an athlete unless the individual chooses to become one. “There are less kids involved in grassroots sports, which means less high-performance athletes. Helping parents get their kids to be physically literate will not only raise the level of health in Canada, but also our performance on the international scene,” says Monette.

And the goals shared with Canadian Sport for Life; Monette’s confident activeforlife.ca will continue to educate parents on physical literacy. “Physical literacy is not for ‘jocks only.’ It begins the moment a child is born. Kids who get regular physical activity and play sports are not only healthier, but also get better grades.”

The current funding landscape 

Sport Canada, a Department of Canadian Heritage branch, whose mission is to enhance opportunities for all Canadians to participate and excel in sport, is the largest government-funded sport body in the country. In the most recent Sport Canada Contributions Report from 2011-12, ParticipAction received $4.5 million from Sport Canada’s Sport Support program, behind only the largest NSOs, such as Alpine and Rowing Canada. Alpine received almost $4.8 million, while Rowing saw just over $5.1 million in funds. The Sport Support Program aims to develop athletes and coaches at the highest international levels, while also increasing the number of Canadians from all segments of society involved in sport.

ParticipAction, a national not-for-profit organization, strives to purely inspire and support Canadians in their quest to get active; although it doesn’t focus on education. The Sport Canada sum, along with other, smaller grants and sponsorship deals, totaled just over $6 million for the 2012 ParticipAction budget. Forty per cent went to marketing and communications. Thirty-six per cent went to projects, which included a Bring Back Play marketing campaign, the Sneak It In sneaker week, and Teen Challenge. Sneak It In encourages participants to sneak in only 10 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity for one week every April. The Teen Challenge, aimed at youth aged 13–19, challenges teens to overcome inactivity with new fitness programs.

While over three-quarters of the annual ParticipAction budget goes to advertisements and campaigns designed to remind Canadians to “get active,” it drew the most criticism not for failing to provide education changes, but for partnering with Coca-Cola, as part of the Teen Challenge program. With an overall contribution of $5 million, it’s difficult to miss Coca-Cola’s presence in television and web advertisements for the campaign. ParticipAction declined to comment on the Coca-Cola Teen Challenge partnership, as well as its overall marketing strategies and success measurement.

Many are not impressed, including CS4L. “A waste of money. A total waste of money. Input. Output. How are they measuring the money they put into TV ads?” asks Balyi.

The health of sport

Patti-Jean Naylor, an obesity expert and professor in the School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education at the University of Victoria, finds the Coca-Cola affiliation perplexing.

“I would have preferred a corporation who wasn’t involved in marketing sugary drinks to children. Sugar-sweetened beverages are really a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic,” says Naylor, whose primary area of research is health promotion and prevention.

“Does a marketing campaign alone, like ParticipAction, do anything? No. I would call it a necessary but not sufficient condition for change. People knowing is one thing. People feeling motivated or persuaded by the messaging is another.” She’d like to see real change.

Change happens when all sectors work together. “It takes a village to deal with the issue of inactivity. Every single sector has to be involved. We do need the teachers, early learning and childcare providers, as well as parents to be skilled up and feel comfortable in implementing more physical activity,” says Naylor.

Way agrees. “We have to be proactive in this area, because there are so many influences around inactivity.” He sees sport as an unused tool in the fight against obesity. Physical literacy integration at the school level would fix this.

“When we look at literacy and reading, we’re very specific in terms of what reading level our children are at. We can measure literacy in terms of reading levels and we can measure numeracy. We measure in school, but when it comes to physical education, we don’t,” adds Way.

Naylor suggests motor skills assessment be introduced to physcal  education. In her ideal world, schools (at the elementary level in particular) would also have physical education specialists teaching physical literacy. “Are we succeeding as a school system,” she asks, “if we don’t also address children’s physical literacy?”

An expert’s plea

At the 2013 Canadian Sport for Life annual National Summit, Dean Kriellaars, a leading physical literacy expert in Canada and an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy, School of Medical Rehabilitation, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Manitoba, discussed the urgent need for physical literacy in Canada.

Like Naylor, Kriellaars does not find the work of ParticipAction sufficient. “I am no longer interested in promotion. We’ve used promotion for 45 years in this country. Promotion alone is never going to cut it—we have to provide.” Provide education, that is.

He’s also interested in how education could reinvent physical activity. “We send home reading and writing to a kid. Why not send home physical literacy homework,” asks Kriellaars, who notes the peak of physical literacy instruction in school systems is grade six.

Physical literacy criticism 

Besides funding shortcomings, integrating physical literacy as a key education and sport tool faces criticism from the developmental sport sector.

Canadian Sport for Life’s LTAD plan removes competitive rankings from most development stages, especially the Active Start, FUNdamental and Learn to Train ages. Pressure to score goals and hoist the trophy distracts from a player’s skill development. Players under the age of 12 now find game scores and league standings vanishing across the country.

Last year, the Ontario Soccer Association implemented a LTAD plan, which included removing scorekeeping at matches.

Way is accustomed to backlash, remaining optimistic that Canadian Sport for Life can convince players, parents, and coaches a no-standings system does work. “We’re not against competition. We’re just for whatever is developmentally appropriate. Having a high emphasis on winning and losing for children is not a way to develop abilities and confidence.”

Sport Canada’s mixed messages

Sport Canada’s mission includes both sport excellence and overall participation, but it spends far more on high-performance endeavours than grassroots programs. Revealed in a freedom of information request, they contributed $64 343 900 to the 2011-12 Own the Podium endeavour. Their contribution made up 86 per cent of the overall budget.

Launched in 2005, prior to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, Own the Podium formed to help Canadian athletes place first in overall medal standings in Vancouver. Athlete success in 2010 helped Own the Podium continue to operate. Unlike B2Ten, a similar non-profit organization, Own the Podium does not concern itself with physical literacy or increasing child and youth sport participation.

A Jan. 13, 2012 Own the Podium board report reveals, “Funding will be allocated on a top down, targeted basis focusing on those sports and individuals that have the greatest chance of winning medals at the Olympic Games in 2012 and beyond. Sports with the capacity to deliver multiple medals and medalists will be the priority.”

As well, the “active for life” mindset both B2Ten and Canadian Sport for Life encourage, in which winning isn’t emphasized, competes with the views of Own the Podium.

An Own the Podium board report from July 23, 2012 highlights why high-performance investment continues. “The most recent Olympics show us that medals matter and Canadians care. A new culture for winning was instilled in Canada thanks to the Vancouver Games. Now more than ever before we believe it is okay to win—and Canadians want to win!”

Looking ahead

For now, Canadian Sport for Life continues to advocate for physical literacy and education changes.

Back at the ultimate Frisbee intramural game, Anderson’s team, the Floppy Discs, struggles to score points. “We’re losing, but we’re having a good time,” he says, cheering on a teammate. For him, keeping active in adulthood, not keeping score, takes priority. “It’s a lot easier to be motivated when you’re older when you’ve played sports and been taught how to be healthy as a kid. Even if you’re losing, you have 16 new friends.”

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