The challenges around meaningful competition

Every 3 years the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) brings together thousands of Aboriginal athletes from across the continent to compete in the 14-sport event. For many of these athletes, ranging in age from 13 to 19 and striving for excellence in their respective sports, the NAIG is the ultimate moment in their athletic careers. But is this experience as meaningful and positive as it could be?

Initially, these Games were established as an opportunity for young Aboriginal people to come together both to create social connections and to excel in their chosen sport. While these are still the desired outcomes of the NAIG, the concept of meaningful competition is not emphasized within the Games.

Meaningful competitions lead to results that are relatively close and not predictable. Competitors are matched with others of a similar level of ability and are challenged to be the best they can be at that moment in time. They believe they have a chance for success and remain fully engaged throughout the competition. Unfortunately, blowouts frequently occur at the NAIG. These situations hurt both sides. The stronger team or player isn’t challenged and therefore doesn’t have to perform at the highest level to succeed, which can result in complacency or disinterest; the weaker participants, meanwhile, will be disheartened by a blowout, which can lead to dropout if they feel there is no point in continuing with competition in that sport.

Blowouts aren’t solely a NAIG issue, however, and occur in both the mainstream and Aboriginal sport systems across Canada. Lopsided results tend to occur more frequently in Aboriginal sports and communities due to a lack of competition opportunities. Field hockey has tried to address this by implementing a seeding system to match teams appropriately. The idea is that a coach or administrator ranks their team accordingly for better matchups. However, many coaches snub their nose at seeding –they only care about winning the top tier as opposed to the third tier, for example. We need to change the mindset so that it’s the meaningful aspect of competition that matters and not just the championship itself.

Another element of meaningful competition is an event that’s structured to reinforce the progress of Long-Term Participant Development stage-specific skills and abilities. In order to have meaningful competition, athletes of similar ability or stage should compete together. Traditionally, the sport system categorizes participants based on chronological age (children born in the same year compete with and against one another regardless of physiological maturation), whereas Long-Term Participant Development advises grouping participants based on developmental age (whether an individual is an early or late developer; how competent they are in a given sport). Often age does not equate to ability – particularly if an athlete or team has just started to play the sport or they have not had access to quality, qualified programs or coaches. While NAIG features age categorization ranging from U14 to U19, depending on sport, with some opportunities for younger athletes to upgrade, many sports within Aboriginal communities lack any age category alignment, which can stunt the development of all those involved.

For developmentally appropriate competition to occur, competition formats (rules, field size, duration) must be modified to align with athlete stage of development. Adult competition should never be imposed on children. Two instances where sports have modified their programming accordingly are Baseball Canada’s Rally Cap program and Basketball Canada’s 3-on-3 initiative. The methods these sports use balance out and make the experience meaningful, ensuring athletes of similar ability play each other. The NAIG age categories all justify adult competition, but if community sports were set up to get kids more touches and more overall involvement with developmentally appropriate equipment and field sizing, then that would likely lead to a more meaningful NAIG competition by the time those kids reached the competition.

At the community level there sometimes will be competitions that actually eliminate teams or individuals midway through the season. This subsequent lack of game time – and training time, if the teams or individuals cease training once eliminated – will hinder the participants’ development and likely adversely affect their preparation in advance of the NAIG. Early elimination should be avoided, even if it means establishing a tiered league or competition following the midway event.

A cornerstone of meaningful competition is that individuals have the opportunity to participate in competition that encourages them to learn and improve both during and after the event. Part of the NAIG vision is for its athletes to have equal opportunities for participation. However, this isn’t always the case. With soccer, for example, teams consist of 18 players with five substitutions permitted per game. This means that, at the very least, two players will spend the entire game sitting on the bench. This doesn’t help their development and won’t provide as positive an experience – and then there are the players’ parents who travel to watch their children compete at the NAIG, but then don’t even et to see them play. How can the rules be adjusted to increase participation? Maybe move to seven substitutions?

In the 2014 NAIG evaluation report, 96 percent of participants indicated their intent to stay actively involved in competitive sport after the Games. This is a remarkable number, especially considering the changes that could be made to ensure the competition was more meaningful. Perhaps with a few tweaks, the NAIG will be able to boast that 100 percent of its participants remain involved in competitive sport.

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