The Dichotomy Between the Aboriginal and Mainstream Sport Systems

Every Easter weekend for the past 55 years, hundreds of Aboriginal soccer players from around British Columbia have come to Victoria to compete in the annual Totem Soccer Tournament. Upwards of 70 teams – spanning men’s, women’s and youth divisions – treat the Victoria soccer community to a display of quality soccer. Likewise, the ‘Namgis First Nation plays host to a tournament over Father’s Day weekend in June where, for nearly 60 years, participants have flocked to Alert Bay, a community of less than 1500 people located on Cormorant Island, to share in their sport and their cultures.

These are just two examples of the many indigenous soccer tournaments that happen across British Columbia each year. Despite the size of some of these tournaments, the fact that many have lasted several decades, and that these tournaments often showcase talented athletes playing soccer at a high level, the mainstream sport organizations do not have a role in these events, nor do they appreciate the competition opportunity that this offers these developing players.

The driving force behind these tournaments is for families and communities to come together to celebrate their culture and enjoy the sport of soccer. Winning is secondary to the social aspect of the tournament. Herein lies the main difference between the Aboriginal sport system and the mainstream sport system, which run parallel to one another but often do not intersect.

The mainstream system is built upon Canada Soccer’s multistage Long-Term Player Development framework. Its goal is for participants to develop the competence, confidence and motivation to pursue excellence at the highest possible level before entering the Active for Life stage. The provincial sport organizations (PSOs) together with the national sport organization (NSO) assume that participants will strive to compete at the provincial level in the hopes of entering the national pathway.

One of the reasons the PSO doesn’t recognize the Aboriginal sport system is because the latter emphasizes social and community development above sport excellence and a defined competition structure. Worth noting is that the Aboriginal sport system exists in large part because it is invisible to the PSO – which also happens to be what many Aboriginal participants prefer. Aboriginal kids generally begin playing soccer for the social aspect of the sport. They are often deterred by the mainstream system’s approach to competition and don’t want to miss out on Aboriginal opportunities by pursuing mainstream soccer. The result of this is that the PSO and the NSO presume that Aboriginal athletes aren’t skilled enough to represent their province or nation. Those Aboriginal athletes who do enter into the mainstream system face additional challenges. Leaving their communities for extended periods of time for training camps or competition can adversely affect their lifestyles and lead to feelings of isolation.

Until the Aboriginal system implements a defined competition structure that aligns with Long-Term Player Development, it is unlikely that the PSO will recognize or service this parallel system. However, in something of a catch 22, the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity Partners Council – which “oversees” all Aboriginal tournaments and competition – has no power to regulate competition structure or align tournaments within the Aboriginal sport system, as all of these events are operated autonomously. If the PSO were to attempt to dictate age groups or a tiered development system, for instance, the provincial governing body undeniably would be met by resistance.

So, what can be done to bridge these two sport systems? How can the PSO recognize and support the Aboriginal soccer system?

First, the PSO must not presume that the goal of the Aboriginal system and its participants is to enter into, and progress through, the mainstream system. The PSO’s role instead should be about complimenting the existing Aboriginal system so that participants can develop physical literacy and sport-specific skills, as well as the social and cultural connection to the game, while remaining within the Aboriginal system. If Aboriginal participants develop the competence, confidence and motivation to pursue opportunities in the mainstream pathway, then that choice should be up to the individuals, and the support structures from both systems must be in place to make this transition as seamless as possible.

Second, if these two systems are to be aligned, the question of sport development must be addressed. Much of this comes down to coaching. Coaches are involved at the grassroots level, but by the time athletes reach the Indigenous Games, for instance, quality coaches are largely missing. One way the PSO potentially could support the Aboriginal system would be through coach development. Community coaches currently would be responsible for the kids’ development starting at a young age, but most wouldn’t have the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) qualification to effectively coach based on Long-Term Player Development; mainstream coaches, on the other hand, would have these qualifications, but most would lack the cultural competence to coach Aboriginal athletes with a holistic approach. By supporting one another, the PSO and the Aboriginal sport system could ensure that all coaches – both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal – had the cultural competence and NCCP qualification to effectively coach Aboriginal participants at all stages of Long-Term Player Development and within both systems. As well, the PSO needs to adapt their stipulations around coach training numbers, so that coach training can be offered in smaller communities and train the coaches who are then delivering soccer development in Aboriginal communities. The Aboriginal Partners Council has offered on numerous occasions to offset the costs associated with offering the soccer coach training to reduced numbers.

Third, the concepts of meaningful competition must be integrated, but not at the expense of the social and cultural nature of Aboriginal soccer. Meaningful competition, which is athlete-centered, coach-led and system-supported, provides experiences that support learning for competitors through competitions that are structured to reinforce the development of Long-Term Player Development stage-specific skills and abilities. Again, this will be a challenge, as the Aboriginal Partners Council currently doesn’t have the power to implement and align Long-Term Player Development across all Aboriginal soccer leagues and tournaments. But, if the PSO and the Aboriginal system can find a way to support each other in this endeavour, the benefits will be threefold: coaches in both systems will be better qualified and more culturally competent, Aboriginal participants will develop a higher level of physical literacy and soccer-specific skills, and Aboriginal participants will have more opportunity to represent their regions, province and nation – while maintaining their social and cultural connection to the sport.

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