Matt Young (photo at left, with blue/white hat), the inspiration for Chilliwack filmmaker Atlee James of Potential Pictures to embark on his documentary The Cost of Winning at a recent screening at Old Yale Brewery. (Darren McDonald photo). Movie poster (right) for The Cost of Winning (Potential Pictures)

Chilliwack filmmaker tackles problems in youth sport culture

Documentary ‘The Cost of Winning’ a wide-ranging analysis of how adults took fun out of kids’ sports

Nigel Bates was driving his daughter home after one of her baseball games a few years back and he wasn’t happy about how she played.

The Chilliwack dad started into what he later called “a ramble” about her play.

Then he had a revelation.

“I could just see the look on her face that this conversation isn’t fun.”

Bates realized that he was becoming one of “those” parents, over-bearing, putting on pressure, taking the fun out of sport.

And isn’t fun the point of sport? That is certainly what sport is supposed to be, but all too often parents and coaches and sports leaders have shifted the focus to winning and an adult-definition of success.

That shift from sport as play to a cultural obsession with developing high-level athletes is the subject of a wide-ranging documentary produced by Chilliwack filmmaker Atlee James and Potential Pictures.

The Cost of Winning takes viewers from Chilliwack sports fields and school gyms to sports leaders and experts at UBC, the University of Ohio, the U.S. Olympic Team, all the way to ski jumping coaches in Norway and Sport New Zealand.

One of the key takeaway messages from the film is that youth sport enrolment is on the decline, worldwide.

But why?

James embarked upon the documentary when his friend Matt Young he grew up playing sports with told him about sport culture today.

“I had just had my daughter. He said, ‘Atlee, just you wait until your daughter gets into sports.’ You hear stories: coaches are crazy, parents are crazy, you think it’s very isolated.”

Jones had an idea for his filmmaker friend.

“He started the idea that this culture of youth sport really needs to be looked at more,” James said.

So James started doing research. He made connections with sport leaders across North America and beyond. Some well-known names make the film, such as Jason de Vos, director of development for the Canadian Soccer Association and former English Premier League player, and Pat LaFontaine, ex-NHLer of the New York Islanders.

After filming thousands of minutes of interviews, James pared it all down to a tight and compelling 24-minute documentary on the state of youth sport, a foreboding picture mostly from the mouths of leaders on the front lines.

De Vos talks about how kids have figured out better than adults that success in sport is about one thing: fun.

“We’ve got to change the metric by which we measure success in… youth sport,” he says in the film.

Former NFL football player Chris Spencer talks about how when he was young, there weren’t year-round development programs focused on one sport, kids played soccer when the ball was around, basketball when they saw a hoop, and football if they had one. There is even an argument that the multi-sport free play most adults today grew up with actually helps with the core sport because it develops different muscles and an ability to move in different ways.

“We need to back the focus off and let kids be kids,” Spencer says.

UBC sport psychology professor Shaunna Tayler agrees.

“One of the biggest changes has been the multi-sport athlete and maybe the death of the multi-sport athlete… can we reinstate the idea of seasons and the seasonality of sport?”

So why the decline in sport? It may just be the buzz-kill effect of parents like Nigel who (before he had his revelation) want their kids to excel at the expense of fun. It’s what de Vos of the Whitecaps said a colleague of his calls “the adultification of sport.”

So obsessed with professional sport and the Olympics, and the potential for glory and medals and even money, adults have turned sport into work.

Ted Logan, a player development consultant for the PGA of America points out that 96 per cent of youth group age winners don’t go on to win a gold medal or go professional.

Gene Smith, athletic director at Ohio State University who oversees 36 sports, 1,000 athletes and 200 new ones every year, shares an anecdote about the parents of a tennis athlete who he saw after the young man didn’t win a match.

“He lost the match and it was like a death in the family,” Smith said. “Is it their dream or is it the parents’ dream?”

Ex-NHLer LaFontaine said when you ask kids what sport is all about, it’s usually about being with friends and having fun.

“Winning is way down the list,” he said.

Chilliwack filmmaker Atlee James of Potential Pictures introduces his documentary Cost of Winning at a recent screening at Old Yale Brewery. The film takes a wide-reaching look at the increasing pressure being put on kids in sports.(Darren McDonald photo)

Back home in Chilliwack, James took his cameras to his daughter’s school, Cheam elementary, and put these questions to gym teacher Jessica Williams. For Williams, she tries to foster a love of movement and gets away from organized sport and playing to win.

“I don’t want to raise a snowflake generation that can’t handle failure, but I think we really need to be aware of the kids’ emotional level, at whatever age they are at, and maybe give them a lot of guidance about why they are doing sport, why they are there.”

As for James who was behind the camera on his journey to make The Cost of Winning, the takeaway is that he realized his daughter is in control of her sport experience.

“I’m not going to correct her on anything,” he said. “I might talk to a coach, understand what she is getting herself into. But she is only eight. Let her be. Let her guide her own decisions.”

James played a lot of sports when he was young in Kamloops. Rugby, football, squash. He got a scholarship to UBC where he played football with his friend Matt Young. They played because it was fun, but even there, the pressure to play and keep up with coursework eventually made it not fun for him. It became work.

And what he learned by making this documentary is that the intense pressure to play hockey yearround to get onto an elite team, as an example, is not a local concern. It’s not even just a Canadian problem that kids are being pressured to treat sport like work. It’s a worldwide phenomenon and the results are counter-productive for sports organizations up to the Olympic and professional level.

Then James looks at playgrounds and he sees kids being creative and active and athletic all for free, all for fun.

“Just go outside. Just jump. Go fall down.”

James recently held a screening of The Cost of Winning at Old Yale Brewing where he invited a couple dozen people including those who were in the film, members of his squash league, and other friends and interested people. After the screening physical education consultant Glenn Young facilitated a discussion about what people got from the film.

James has had response from numerous agencies, and he has a number of screenings planned. The film got the attention of the Olympic Organizing Committee of Lithuania, which interviewed him and showed his film in translation.

Screenings of The Cost of Winning are available to community groups or in classrooms, and they come with guidance on how to lead a discussion afterwards. Anyone interested can contact info@potentialpictures.com to get a download version of the film and there is no cost. Or visit Potential Pictures online and follow the link to The Cost of Winning page for more information.


@PeeJayAitch
paul.henderson@theprogress.com

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