Making meaningful competition affordable and accessible in rural Saskatchewan

Reflecting on the competition concepts outlined in Section 1 and Long-Term Athlete Development/Long-Term Participant Development Pathway 10 Key Factors, there are questions to consider when examining competition from a sport and athlete development perspective.

  1. To participate in competition, how far and how much does it cost to travel?
  2. Are associated competition fees and travel too expensive, making participation inaccessible?
  3. Is it necessary to “go far” to get appropriate competition experiences?

Ensuring Aboriginal athletes in northern Saskatchewan have access to meaningful competition is no small feat. The communities range from a couple of thousand of residents down to just a few hundred, meaning the participant pools from which to draw are quite shallow. Some high school sports teams require the participation of every eligible student just to field a team. On top of this, vast distances separate many of the rural communities, making it both time consuming and expensive to meet for competition. Teams sometimes have to drive as much as six hours each way to play teams just within their division. Facing such demographic and geographic challenges, how can meaningful competition stand a chance?

The answer? Six-a-side football.

Football’s origin in the north

Six-a-side football has been growing in popularity in southern Saskatchewan since the 1970s. Where a typical 12-a-side team requires roughly 50 players, six-a-side teams usually consist of anywhere from 12 to 24 players. Due to the relatively small population numbers of communities in the province – particularly in rural Aboriginal communities – this modification to the traditional format has made the game of football much more accessible.

In 2009, Football Saskatchewan partnered with Churchill Community High School in La Ronge and Cameco to create the Northern Touchdown Program and offer football to La Ronge. This program soon expanded and delivered spring and summer camps to various northern communities until 2012. At that point, Mark Williment – Northern Lights School Division #113 Superintendent of Education – connected with Gabe Andrews, one of the program’s coaches, to develop a program in the school division. “It was evident to many that the game of football had the potential to engage indigenous youth, was likely to help young people stay in school, and build lifelong skills,” says Williment.

The Northern Lights School Division created the Northern Saskatchewan Football League in 2013, which included teams from six of the seven high schools within the school division. Three more schools joined the league the next year, and by 2015 – with the addition of La Ronge – the Northern Saskatchewan Football League had joined the Saskatchewan High School Association as its own 10-team conference.

How to make sport accessible to participants

When they introduced football to a region that had never had it before, Football Saskatchewan and the Northern Lights School Division recognized that making football accessible to the residents was a lot different than simply making it available.

Ryan Karakochuk is the Program Manager for Sport with the Northern Sport, Culture & Recreation District. He coaches the team in Creighton, one of the three expansion teams that joined in 2014. “At the start of the season each year, we’re not just selecting the football players we have available to make up the team – most of our players really know nothing about football,” he says. “We have to teach them how to throw the ball, how to tackle, and even educate them just on what a first down is.”

When he first established the league, Williment was aware that the coaching and education piece would be critical to making the sport accessible to the participants, so the new coaches held a weekend-long jamboree for all the interested players from the seven high schools prior to the 2013 season. The jamboree has become an annual event where players and coaches from elite leagues, including U Sports, the Canadian Junior Football League, and the Western Women’s Canadian Football League, as well as representatives from Football Saskatchewan, come to coach and instruct those Grade 7, 8, 9, and 10 students who are entering into high school or junior high and want to play. The kids go through a skills combine the first day, and then drills and exposure to the game on the second day.

Despite the fact these players are often introduced to the sport for the first time just a few months before their high school seasons begin, the inclusive nature of football has increased the sport’s accessibility as well. “Whether big, small, fast, tall, whatever – football requires players of different shapes and sizes for different positions,” says Jeff Yausie, Football Saskatchewan Executive Director. “The other thing that has helped us is that football is a late maturing sport, so people have often developed physical literacy and other skills by playing other sports.

“We have learned to not funnel down too early, as we only start getting competitive in high school and football is a physical game. A lot of kids have already finished playing other sports and decide to play pick up football in high school and they have that physical skill set.”

Coaching and officiating clinics are offered in conjunction with the jamboree so that local coaches and officials can earn their certification and help to make the competition as meaningful as possible for the players.

“Essentially, we have only been playing football [in northern Saskatchewan] for four years, and now we have about 200 kids who play each year, almost all of them are indigenous, and the following by the parents and the communities is just tremendous,” says Williment. “It’s to the point where we believe fully that kids are staying in school and becoming better citizens through their competition and work on the field.”

Williment says this process was initially about engaging communities that had not previously played football. Once the introduction is out of the way, the process becomes about providing these kids with an opportunity to pursue meaningful competition.

Affordability

Introducing kids to a new sport has its challenges. But introducing an entire school district to a new sport is a serious organizational and financial commitment. The infrastructure has to be built, the equipment purchased, and all of the financial logistics around travel have to be figured out. And when the participants, particularly in the early stages of Aboriginal Long-Term Participant Development, incur big costs for quality, developmentally appropriate competition, it actually hinders meaningful competition.

“When the school division decided to invest in our schools with the Northern Saskatchewan Football League program, it was close to $100,000 [that would be contributed], so we got commitments from the coaches and the schools that they would participate,” says Williment. “We certainly wanted to make sure we removed whatever barriers we could, whether travel costs, field conditions, or if other equipment was needed.”

Williment does additional fundraising to help teams with other general costs. Cameco, the Saskatchewan-based uranium company that helped fund the Northern Touchdown Program, donates $10,000 a year. The Areva Corporation, a uranium company based out of France, also dedicates $10,000 per year toward player, coach and officials’ development by sponsoring the annual jamboree. This sponsorship ensures the players can participate in this event at no cost. The school division actively seeks out additional sponsorships and receives contributions from other organizations and individuals. When teams have to rent facilities while playing out of town, or if players attend development camps or tryouts for select teams, the school division allocates funds to offset costs. Along with the financial support from the school division and the uranium companies, each school does its own fundraising to help cover competition costs.

As well, a number of grant and funding opportunities are available that help Aboriginal participants in northern Saskatchewan to pursue meaningful competition.

Since 2008, the Northern Sport, Culture & Recreation District and Sask Sport Inc. have been administering the Aboriginal Sport Grant to teams, clubs and minor sports associations from across northern Saskatchewan. Each year $90,000 is available in total, and each grant is worth up to $5000 and will be awarded to any sport associated with a provincial sport organization. The money is meant to cover competition, travel, equipment, or sport development expenses.

“As far as impact of this grant, it's probably our biggest sport development tool that our district has,” says Karakochuk, who conducted a report on the grant between 2008 and 2013. During that period 93 applicants were awarded more than $420,000 to support sport development. Organizations that receive the grant have an option to apply for an enhancement grant of an additional $5000 the following year. So if a team uses its initial grant to purchase equipment and field upgrades, for example, it could apply for an enhancement to cover tournament fees, travel costs and coaching clinics the next year. Once a club has received both grants, it cannot apply again until seven years after the initial application date.

Many communities have been able to introduce sports clubs that have since become successful due to this funding. “We saw wrestlers out of Dillon apply for this grant and then all of a sudden the north had wrestlers in the Saskatchewan Games,” says Karakochuk. “Dillon used the grant to purchase mats, helmets and singlets. Having this equipment allowed them to both train more and host tournaments. It’s all part of the development process – if you don’t have the equipment and you don’t get the experience, then you’re not going to play in a Games.”

Coaches and phys-ed teachers in northern communities now use the sports that are offered in the Saskatchewan Games and the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) as a model for which to prepare their athletes and provide them an opportunity to pursue competition at as high a level as possible. “It’s huge for sport development because these northern communities get really excited for the Saskatchewan Games and the [NAIG] and use this grant to help build toward those Games,” says Karakochuk.

The 2016 Estevan Saskatchewan Summer Games featured more athletes from northern Saskatchewan than ever before. While Karakochuk does believe there is a correlation between those improved participation numbers and the Aboriginal Sport Grant, he says the key is having passionate leaders in the communities who are willing to coach, train and run practices on a consistent basis.

The Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation also grants funding to eligible, non-profit volunteer sport organizations. When Football Saskatchewan sent an all-Aboriginal football team to the 6 Nations Challenge – a friendly championship that took place across Canada between 2010 and 2013 and celebrated six-a-side football as well as Aboriginal athletes – the Saskatchewan Lotteries funding subsidized this program. Football Saskatchewan set a nominal registration fee between $150 and $200, but if a player couldn’t afford this it, Saskatchewan Lotteries would cover that as well.

According to Williment, schools within the Northern Lights School Division have also succeeded in securing Saskatchewan Lotteries grants when doing their individual fundraising. He says the school division intends to pursue this funding opportunity more in the future.

Additional grants that support Aboriginal athletes in northern Saskatchewan, particularly at the grassroots level, include Canadian Tire Jumpstart and KidSport.

Dealing with distance and travel time through appropriate training-to-competition ratio

While the money that comes from these grants is often used to offset travel costs, and despite the fact the Northern Lights School Division helps its schools to cover travel and accommodation expenses, nothing can be done to reduce the often-immense distances between these rural communities.

For instance, La Loche and Creighton both reside in the Northern Lights School Division despite being situated on opposite sides of the province. They compete in the west and east divisions of the Northern Saskatchewan Football League, respectively, but if both qualified for the northern regional championship and either of these schools were the host, it would mean a 12-hour trip each way for the other school. To play regular season divisional games, teams travel up to six hours each way.

This is the challenge athletes in northern Saskatchewan face in pursuing meaningful competition. But even though travel time can take away from necessary training time, the football season’s training-to-competition structure makes up for it.

The Saskatchewan High School Athletics Association permits schools to begin football training in mid-August. The season starts the first week after Labour Day and games take place on Thursdays. Teams play four games during the regular season, with a bye week mixed in, before single-elimination regional playoffs begin in late October. Playoffs consist of two rounds and a final. The two teams that qualify for provincials would play anywhere from one to three games. Depending on how many teams compete in the season each year, teams could play anywhere from five to 10 games.

Most teams train Monday through Thursday, sometimes twice a day, with the odd video session on Sunday. Players are given Friday and Saturday off to recover. This means players are taking part in anywhere from four to eight training sessions for every game they play, and that’s not including the preseason training in August or the sessions that take place during the bye week.

Football players in northern Saskatchewan may have to travel long distances for their competitions, but at least they make up for it with the amount of time they spend training.

Improving meaningful competition through expansion

In an effort to improve the quality of competition in northern Saskatchewan – to avoid blowouts in divisional and regional play and also so that teams from the north can compete more meaningfully with teams in the south – the Northern Lights School Division and Football Saskatchewan have begun implementing flag football for younger players.

“By looking at flag football as an alternative, younger players can grow and develop a lot of the skills that are important for tackle football later on,” says Yausie. “You’re developing the quarterbacks, you’re developing athleticism and speed and agility so that these kids grow into better football players and have a better football team experience in high school.”

This is happening in some of the larger communities where the high schools have enough players to start a junior program. But communities are also implementing flag football for younger kids to help familiarize them with the sport at an earlier age. “We have targeted kids in Grades 5, 6 and 7 so that when they come to the jamboree and are introduced to the tackle game, they already have an understanding of the game,” says Williment. “We’ve had a lot of support and enthusiasm and we’re now getting well over 100 kids playing in the jamborees.”

With so many kids being introduced to the sport in a developmentally appropriate way each year, competition is bound to become even more meaningful in northern Saskatchewan.

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