Sports Academies: Tremendous Growth and Influence on Athlete Development in Canada.
A brief history, the impact, the future and an outline for athletes and parents.
The landscape of school and amateur/ elite sports is changing right before our eyes.
Despite his recent unfortunate injury Jamal Murray is one of the rising starts in the NBA. In path of development went through Orangeville Prep in Ontario, then to University of Kentucky for 1 year and on to the NBA.
When Sidney Crosby and his parents mapped out their plan of action when he was 14, it included a stop at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Minnesota to study school and hockey. That was 19 years ago. If Sidney were coming up today, perhaps he would have chosen something in Canada, as the options for this type of school have grown tremendously.
There is a changing landscape right in front of our eyes in youth athlete development at the high school and even middle school level. It has emerged across the country steadily since 2000, and COVID has and will speed up the value to the next generation Murray’s and Crosby’s. The best of these emerging sports academies are not targeting the short path to the pros, as that still remains the path for only a very small percentage. The best of these academies cultivate an environment of development, of academic as well as athletic achievement. The best of these keep kids in school, keep them engaged and allow for skill development at a different pace than keeping sports and school separate.
Their rise of Canadian Sports Academies comes from filling a void that hindered the development of many young athletes. In most Canadian communities, sports are run independently from schools. They are run privately or non-profits by community based organizations. When separate, the student athlete studies separate from school activities. 3 pm exit meant getting homework done for practice after 5 pm. In many cases, weeknight games. In academies sports practice is built into the school day, and competitions are often on weekends.
At first glance, the sports academies seem like a more synchronized approach supporting the academic and athletic development needs of the student.
There is a growing disconnect between the traditional school and community-based programs. There is no connection in many cases. They are parallel institutions, both their own politics and priorities. In big cities, sports associations are run by a board of directors that aren’t always aligned with what is best for the athletes. In the school/community model, the athlete and family are running around getting tutoring and skill development help outside the organizations. From tutoring to healthcare, the athlete academies are emerging with a better structure.
Having said that, there are exceptions to the rule. There are well run high school sports programs, some of which collaborative with the school boards or funded completely by them. Historically, the province that has led the charge with athletes and studies is Quebec with their Sport Etudes programs. Currently there are over 600 government supported Sports Etudes opportunities in Quebec across 48 locations for high school students ranging in sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer as many other provinces offer. However, they also have opportunities for sport study programs focusing on non mainstream disciplines such as boxing, gymnastics, volleyball, tennis, skiing, figure skating, judo, swimming, track and field , triathlon, baseball, ping pong, fencing, golf, Tae Kwan Do, diving and others.
There are other organizations that have had a strong sports/academic connection, but not across so many sports and such a long history.
When it come to hockey development, Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Saskatchewan comes to mind. It was established in 1983 and still goes strong today with boys and girls programs.
Then there is Orangeville Prep that opened in 2010 to support basketball development in Canada. Since that time the landscape for sports academies is growing exponentially across the country.
In 2010, a national paper reviewed initiatives by province and identified BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec as leading the way. As of the year 2000, in BC, no sport specific academies were available. As of 2010, 72 schools offered over 110 programs with approximately 4000 student athletes enrolled across 21 sports.1
At that time, a survey with sport schools indicated that 95% have links to community sport through coaching, facility and equipment use. However, only 15% of programs in BC work with provincial (PSO) or national sport organizations (NSO) to set program performance criteria.
Also, 77% of the schools surveyed in BC did not have standards for coaching within these programs. This was in direct contrast to the Quebec model which did.1
Since 2010, this has become a hot topic for these academies. Are they in place to support athletic development or make better players at that particular sport?
The debate seems to be following the lines of the sport specialization one that The Physical Movement addressed recently. This becomes a philosophy for evaluation by athletes and families when considering the sports academy.
While the subsidized school board programs are impressive, the private landscape appears to be growing faster. The upside to the private landscape is often subsidies exist from the corporate world, however the downside is that the standards for support and development are not well defined.
The events of 2020 and into 2021 around the pandemic and the cancellation of community sports seasons has only heightened the divide between community run and academic based programs. Not only is this forcing families to reconsider the community model, they doing so with the overall mental and physical health of our young people in mind.
In contrast, the academies’ programs have continued through the pandemic to some degree.
Mark Fitzgerald is a strength and conditioning coach, with experience at the pro level (Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Marlies), the amateur and school level (Olympic, university, college and high school athletes). Mark has layers of experience at these levels and a unique perspective on what is working and not within Canada.
“There are definitely holes in the academy model, however they are closing fast and severely outshine the community model. Unfortunately, many (not all) minor sports associations have people involved for the wrong reasons. Initiatives that push young athletes and their families to race around to multiple skills coaches after school hours put a strain on many.”
Fitzgerald adds, “the purpose of sports academies/associations should not be to get athletes to pro sports, but to develop athleticism and the total person. This one reason why other countries like the USA are ahead of Canada is so many of these sports, because they start earlier with the total care around athlete development. Strength, conditioning, nutrition, sleep and recovery and overall self-care are all ingrained at a young age at a pace that puts the Canadian student-athlete behind. This is why many student athletes get to the NCAA for example, and spend the first year in the weight room to catch up”.
· COVID has and will accelerate the growth of sports academies.
· The sports academies will expand sports covered.
· A more consistent model will emerge across the country.
· There will be a continued break between those who work within the school board system and those who are privatized. Each will have its own challenges. The school board system will struggle with the flexibility of programming and offers, while the privatized options will struggle with a consistent standard across the board both academically and athletically. The Quebec sports-etudes model seems to be the most consistent and standardize of those across the country working within a school board model.
If we use the experiences we have seen with privatized baseball and hockey programs (not connected to academics), we will see a watering down of sports academies initially because of the influx of multiple options. Without regulation, it becomes the “wild, wild west.”
As Tom Main stated in his Alberta Schools Athletic Association article references, it becomes a buyer beware scenarios for athletes and families. 2
As Coach Fitzgerald mentions, there are many privatized options who have holes in the program.
· Community based programs will struggle unless tied to some kind of academic standard. The first ones to get hit will be in basketball, hockey, soccer. Then others will follow.
This process has already started, and the impact will continue to evolve. Long standing privatized organizations such as the OHL, QMJHL, WHL will be impacted due to missing out on these last 2 years. The events of 2020-21 will influence parents and young hockey players to consider other hockey options to keep their NCAAA eligibility. From this void, opportunity will be filled.
For Athletes and Parents:
· Every province and region being different in the options available, it becomes buyer beware in determining which academy might be a good fit. The criteria for attending a sports academy can be identified by each family based on their needs. Promises of an advanced athletic environment and enhanced exposure should be investigated. Schools will need to (and continue) to make alumni available to quantify the experience.
· Recruiting and marketing will grow in exposure as more opportunities develop.
· With growth of recruiting wars, so will those individuals and agencies in place to represent the athletes best interests.
· At its core, the goals, financial commitment, track record of the organization and evaluation of the program needs to be a major part of the decision-making process. Parents who think that because a group calls themselves “XXX High Performance Academy” or the “Canadian (INSERT SPORT HERE) Academy” means credible, risk being disappointed. Qualifications of coaches, strength of track record and competitive opportunities, support infrastructure and funding model as well as alumni testimonials are all critical boxes to be checked.
There are some outstanding organizations in each region offering tremendous programs currently, however not all are at the same standard.
Each family should be meticulous in their choices, and “check references” as they say. At the end of the day, private schools are businesses. Which is fine, but not all are directed for the right reasons, just like the non-profit community association. School board affiliated programs, as mentioned, often have their own challenges including politics over what is best for the student-athlete.
We can count on sports academies growing in their role of young athlete development for the foreseeable future.