Two of the desired outcomes of meaningful competition are that it supports competitors’ learning and encourages their improvement. Since being introduced to organized football in 2009, the Aboriginal athletes of northern Saskatchewan have displayed these qualities in abundance.
“It would be an understatement to say that football has had an impact on indigenous young people, families and communities in Northern Saskatchewan,” says Mark Williment, Northern Lights School Division #113 Superintendent of Education. “Parents, school staff and community leaders talk about the positive growth that is made by the youth of their communities, while school administrators speak to the fact that not only are players staying in school, but they are demonstrating the leadership in class that they have learned on the field.”
Six-a-side football was introduced to northern Saskatchewan through the Northern Touchdown Program, which delivered camps to various northern communities. At the end of the program’s three-year existence, Williment began working on a plan with one of the program’s coaches, Gabe Andrews, to establish something permanent. This led to the creation of the Northern Saskatchewan Football League – the 10-team northern conference within the Saskatchewan High School Association.
Competition Calendar Planning and Competition Selection
Despite being in high school, many of the kids who join the football team haven’t played the sport before. They would likely be in the Learn to Train stage of Aboriginal Long-Term Participant Development in terms of their developmental age. This stage calls for a much higher training-to-competition ratio to ensure participants are learning the skills associated with the stage. Too much competition inhibits learning and skill development. Training, practices and skill development must be emphasized.
“The kids definitely spend a lot more time practicing than playing – we are training, we are doing conditioning, we're trying to learn the game – two-and-a-half to three months of solid practicing and probably five to seven games,” says Ryan Karakochuk, the Program Manager for Sport with the Northern Sport, Culture & Recreation District, and the coach of the Creighton school team.
Fortunately, the way the football schedule is laid out, participants only play one game a week but train anywhere from four to eight times during that week, depending on their two-a-day schedule in the days leading up to the game. The regular season games take place in September and October, while regional playoffs and provincials play out at the end of the season – allowing the kids to develop their skills as much as possible before the most meaningful games.
Stage Versus Age
In order to have meaningful competition, athletes of similar ability or stage should compete together. Often age does not equate to ability – particularly if an athlete or team has just started to play the sport – which is currently the case in northern Saskatchewan. Many of the kids are introduced to organized, tackle football for the first time at the annual jamboree that takes place in May prior to their entry into high school. Due to these varied levels of unfamiliarity and the fact that some of the smaller schools barely have enough students to field a team, the competition isn’t always balanced.
“I would say at the competition is pretty good,” says Karakochuk. “We have around three teams in our league that are strong, then we have three or four teams that are in the middle and compete with each other, and then we have a couple that struggle.”
Last season Karakochuk’s Creighton team went undefeated through four league games and three regional playoff games before losing its first provincial game by eight points to Birch Hills, who eventually lost in the provincial final to Rosthern.
“We're pretty happy with where we’re at, but you need a very strong team to compete in the provincials with the southern teams,” says Karakochuk. “I grew up in the south and they have been playing football for over 100 years – 12-man, nine-man, six-man – and we're not there as far as exposure. Our kids grow up and they don't really think about football, they think about hockey, they think about soccer, and it's not until they get to about Grade 8 or 9 and they say, ‘oh we can play football? That's cool.’ Whereas in the south, kids are going to [Saskatchewan] Roughriders’ games when they're five years old. Their parents are having football parties, the kids are playing in the streets and the parks. We're not there yet.”
The north has been playing organized football for less than a decade, but they’re expanding their development of the sport. They have begun to introduce flag football to kids in Grades 5, 6, and 7 so that when they get old enough to start tackling and playing in school, they’ll have developed more of the base skills and comprehension of the game.
Developmentally Appropriate Competition
Northern Saskatchewan, as with much of the province, adopted six-a-side football because it’s much easier for rural communities to field teams. It’s accessible, inclusive and attracts many female athletes to the sport as well. In 2010, Saskatoon hosted the inaugural 6 Nations Challenge. This tournament served as a friendly championship celebrating six-a-side football as well as Aboriginal athletes from across the country. The tournament took place across Canada until 2013 when it was cancelled due to a lack of participation from other provinces. Each year, Football Saskatchewan sent an all-Aboriginal team.
“We transitioned from the tournament into a select development camp where First Nations and Aboriginal athletes from across Saskatchewan are nominated to attend the camp based on skill set and character – basically an overall assessment of the athletes both on and off the field,” says Cody Halseth, Football Saskatchewan High Performance Director. “They partake in a four-day camp that furthers their development with our coaches and guest coaches from junior and university football programs across Saskatchewan, and which culminates in a game. It's still the same celebration of football and First Nations and Aboriginal athletes from across our province.”
It is imperative that coaches who work with Aboriginal participants develop a level of cultural competence. When running the 6 Nations camp, Football Saskatchewan draws from a pool of coaches who have been involved in the Aboriginal communities as mentors and leaders for some time. A few will have played post-secondary football and/or currently coach school teams around the province. “We’ll also bring in guest coaches, whether they are coaching or playing at post-secondary schools or on elite teams who can come out and help out with individual skills and kind of be role models to the athletes as well,” says Halseth.
Each year Football Saskatchewan hosts a coaching clinic that is open for all members of Football Saskatchewan to attend. They bring in coaches from the CFL, U Sports, and sometimes the United States to deliver a number of different sessions with varying degree of specialization. Halseth says between 250 and 300 coaches attend and can receive Safe Contact and other NCCP certification.
Additionally, when a community wants to host a coach or officials clinic, Karakochuk works the community lead, a facilitator and the provincial sport organization to deliver the clinic right to the community. They offer the Aboriginal Coaching and Officials Program, which is free for coaches to take, and Karakochuk keeps track of the coaches who take the clinic through the NCCP Locker, and then when he’s selecting coaches for the Saskatchewan Games, for instance, he has a full database of qualified coaches. However, he notes that turnover is a substantial issue around retaining coaches in the north.
Many of the newcomers who come to work and teach in the north come from out of province, so the Northern Sport, Culture & Recreation District will host an Aboriginal coaching module a couple of times a year so that newcomers and non-Aboriginal can develop the cultural competence and emotional intelligence to coach Aboriginal participants and understand the various backgrounds of the people living in the north.
“If we want to establish meaningful competition in the north and maintain it going forward, then this is absolutely something that all coaches should be educated on,” says Karakochuk.