Culture of Youth Sport in Canada vs Europe

By Victor K.

It’s safe to admit that North America and Europe boast very different cultures from one another. While Canada and the USA are probably the most ethnically diverse countries on earth, it’s difficult to recreate societal trends that completely replace the ones that dominate the area. Simple differences like language, accent, food, vehicles and or clothes can be easily spotted by a foreigner. It’s when we start noticing peoples’ attitude and perception on other things, events or people where we truly see a difference in culture.

So how is sport involved in this? It’s a common saying that most sports are roughly 90% mental and 10% physical. While I agree with that belief, I would argue that competitive and professional success in sports can be achieved through what type of mentality you bring while outside of the game. Hard-working, dedicated and disciplined are all attributes that coaches love to hear about players. But are these traits solely the result of the individual’s personality or their cultural upbringing?

For the purpose of this discussion, I will compare the most dominant sports in Canada and Europe. While Canada has seen the most international success with ice-hockey, European countries are largely dominated by soccer. Regardless of the sport, what matters is the cultural upbringing and how youth are integrated into sport. I would like to stress that I am not comparing the effectiveness of athletic institutions in producing professional athletes. I believe that the junior hockey organizations of Canada and professional youth academies of most European countries are equal in merit. I am suggesting the differences in the upbringing and mentality of youth revolving around sport.

So, while it may seem that Canada has done an excellent job in producing pro hockey players, seeing as over 50% of NHL players are Canadian, I would still consider the upbringing of Canadian youth, in a sporting context, as passive. By that, I mean that since Canada is so diverse and full of opportunity and options, that society doesn’t place such a huge emphasis on pursuing a competitive career in sport. Most youth are usually internally motivated or backed up by family and close friends rather than societal trends. What our society does mostly is implore fair-play, fun, participation and respect. While these are all good ideals for active-play, it can become an obstacle for youth who desire utmost competition.

To counter this notion, many European countries place a heavy emphasis on not only participating, but excelling in your respective sport, soccer especially. Soccer is so highly regarded and imbedded on the culture that most youth actively seek competition and challenge, practically to the point where education is seen as secondary. For example, the concept of certain communities where youth play soccer without keeping score would be laughed at.

To support this comparison, I have experienced first-hand the cultural differences in sport. During high-school, I spent some time in Serbia to play soccer. It was with one of top three clubs in the country on both senior and youth levels, therefore our coach would continuously highlight a certain honor and prestige to play for the club and live for its colors. Opposite to Canada’s fun and fair-play model, coaches were not afraid to yell and swear at youth as young as eight years old. Some might see this as obscene, but for the younger youth at my club, “fun” was seen as always trying to outperform everyone else and show off one’s talent. Furthermore, most all of children under ten years old would swear and curse just as teenagers and adults do, and nothing was made of it. After an away game in the opposite corner of the country, and an unfavorable result, a brawl between both teams ensued and spectators/adults joined the action by throwing rocks and spitting at our team… of fifteen year-olds. While immensely inappropriate, this shows that adults are expectant of the determined and serious nature of youth sport.

Finally, I would like to point out that there are always exceptions. While I stated that Canadian society is more passive in its efforts to produce serious athletes, success at the highest level is still being found, albeit in a smaller proportion. This can be supported by the fact that there are roughly 750 Canadians contracted to NHL and AHL franchises. That number may seem miniscule compare to the country’s population, but seeing as each of the 30 NHL teams, along with their AHL affiliate, are allowed to contract 50 players per season, it is estimated that half of a team’s complete roster will be Canadian. I do argue that these individuals are most likely the result of hockey parents breaking the norms of youth development by, what some might consider as, overworking or robbing their child from a “proper” childhood. I believe that when it comes to excelling in one particular sport, expectations are everything. The difference is that certain expectations are more easily facilitated through some cultures than others.

Further reading:

Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets for Middle Childhood

Bairner, A. (2001). Sports, nationalism and globalization: European and North American perspectives. Suny Press.

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5 Responses to Culture of Youth Sport in Canada vs Europe

  1. t628i says:

    Growing up in New Brunswick, it’s not like everywhere I turn, I run into a hockey prodigy; however, in my high school phys ed class, I remember at least 6 of the male students aspired to be drafted into the NHL. Though I encourage lofty dreams I feel as though as a society, we should aspire to raise youth who have realistic dreams as well as intellectual, political, and various other diverse interests. I know that this class is about youth development through recreation and sport, however, I believe that sport should be PART of healthy development, not the the only part. I do believe in healthy competitive sport as well as play, and I do see the merit that sport has but I also hope that professional sport does not become the main aspiration/fixation of youth; especially when only 750 Canadians out of almost 35 million are part of the NHL/AHL. Excellent post though, I enjoyed getting a perspective on European youth.

  2. a74tu says:

    I enjoyed this contrast in how other countries view sports, overall a good look at youth development. One thing that I would like to mention about sports and youth development in Canada is that we really do tend to focus on the fun aspect. Is this thinking really flawed for the majority? We create a place free from the negative implications. I believe that our desire as youth tends to lean toward becoming rich and famous through competition, and in that thinking are we not perpetuating the negative aspects in relation to the ethos of sport and youth development?
    Youth need a place where they can develop positive internal assets opposed to the often corrupt “win at all costs mindset” that is related to amateur sport. Really the professional sport dream has been blow out of proportion in my opinion, but there are always ways youth overcome and develop no matter what.

    Scott A.

  3. l8q90 says:

    Great post Victor.

    I remember when I was in middle or high school here in New Brunswick, our parents would always tell us that we were merely “playing for fun”, and we would consistently respond with “well winning is fun”. We always played to win, no matter what. The times that we lost however, were when we learned the most about how we played as a team and also as an individual. So we took each loss, looked at what we did wrong and worked to fix it. Growing up with this winning mindset, and seeing how it worked to help me learn to deal with loss, it makes me worried for the kids in todays society. They are constantly spoon fed victory merely because they don’t know what a loss is. That “everybody wins”, but that’s not how life works. They haven’t had the experience of losing at a young age so how are they going to handle situations when they grow up and loss is inevitable? I think it’s important for parents to remember the importance that losing can have and be there to help their children through it, instead of covering it up all together.

    Devan F

  4. t510z says:

    I really enjoy your take on the cultural differences in sport in Europe and Canada. I agree with the majority of things you have said, obviously something are slightly radical like the spitting on youth but I agree with the tough love coaching style and the soccer as the main thing in life. If a child came up to a teacher and told the teacher she wanted to be a mathematician and studied everyday, became angry when the student made mistakes, and strived to improve and beat the marks of the students fellow school mates, the student would be looked at as an “achiever”. Why in Canada does that have to be different in sport. If a child truly wants to be a great soccer player the child will need to obviously focus on soccer more then anything else. Though I am not saying that school is not important or that the child should not be educated, I am saying that the child should receive the majority of support on the sport and main priority in their lives. There is always a place for fair play, but that should be a choice that children make. If a child wants to play soccer but do not care about being the best and winning then that should be a league. If a child does have dreams of being a professional soccer player then tough coaching and enormous commitments to winning should be the main priority
    Brandon Z

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