VANCOUVER — Set against the unpredictable backdrop of a pandemic now just weeks shy of its second birthday in this province, no one can yet fully define what the so-called new normal in B.C. high school sports is going to look like.
B.C. high school football, however, released numbers earlier this week which may well provide the first real barometre of COVID’s impact on both a specific school-based sport’s successes as well as its struggles coming off 2020’s cancelled season, and through 2021’s start-up campaign.
High school football in B.C. experienced a 32 per cent increase in the total number of Grade 9-12 registered players from 2019 (1,743 players) to 2021 (2,557), with the latter number being the highest since 2015 (2,641).
Contrasting that, however, was the news that since 2018, the number of registered B.C. high school football coaches had taken more than a sizeable hit, shrinking from over 700 in 2018, to under 300 in 2021.
The coaching numbers could be a little deceptive since there is a cost involved in registration for each member of a program’s staff, yet experts believed that even with that in mind, the attrition rate is still over 50 per cent over that time frame.
Armed with the good news and the bad news, Varsity Letters talked with a quartet of established B.C high school football coaches and administrators to get their take on the game’s current state of affairs.
WHY PLAYER REGISTRATION NUMBERS ARE UP
The 2019 season, for any number of reasons, was something of a low ebb for B.C. high school football registration, with the 1,743 players registered the lowest in at least the last eight seasons of play.
But absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder.
“I think that everybody, coming out of the pandemic, which we thought we were in the fall, was wanting to get involved in something, in one thing, and we had the opportunity where everyone was eager to start the school year off,” explained Travis Bell, who chairs B.C. School Sports’ football sports advisory committee and is the president of the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association.
“That might be the reason because when something gets taken away for a year, people realize how much it means,” continued Bell. “But I also think that as a high school sport in this province, we’ve done a good job to make it safer. There is a lot of confidence with our sport, more than in past year.”
Indeed, the confluence of the concussion issue, the pandemic and the cancelled 2020 season seems to have created a genuine, shared level of enlightenment within the B.C. high school football world.
And looking back almost three months after its will-testing but ultimately successful 2021 re-start season wrapped up with its championship weekend, its sense of community within this province seems re-energized as it pertains to the fullest understanding of what the sport offers its student-athletes.
“Quite frankly, I expected a big bounce back,” begins Farhan Lalji, the longtime and former head coach of the New Westminster Hyacks who continues to work on behalf of the sport as a Triple-A rep.
“I believe kids were hungry to get back to the sport in general after having so much taken away last year. In the case of football, I think it made it easier for kids to enter the sport for the first time because they wouldn’t feel as far behind, as it relates to contact, with everyone having been off a year.”
Speaking to the aforementioned confluence of hurdles placed in front of B.C. high school football, Lalji traces an organic process which took place over the cancelled 2020 season.
“I also feel strongly that putting the pause on the concussion dialogue for a year also helped,” said Lalji. “That issue is a very important one, and I think our sport, especially in B.C., has consistently taken meaningful measure to make improvements in that area and make the game as safe as possible (given that it will always be a contact sport).
“But sometimes it’s hard to change the narrative,” he continued. “Putting a pause on it for a year helped. And when you put it in the context of something that is so much more impactful, like the pandemic, I think it provides a different perspective. Kids simply want to play and now it would seem parents are more likely to support that.”
Yes, the kids just want to play.
And as the 2021 season was in its earliest stages of preparation last August and September, coming back for the first time since 2019, G.W. Graham Grizzlies head coach Luke Acheson could sense a palpable urgency within the student-body at the Chilliwack-based school.
“Kids are craving things and they want to get involved and we had a lot of basketball guys come out for football,” remembers Acheson, whose Grizzlies would later cap the season with Triple A Coastal championship title at B.C. Place Stadium. “They were thinking ‘We might have a (basketball) season, but football is going.’ So it was ‘Can I come out and play for you?’
“We definitely experienced an increase in numbers on both of our teams this year,” Acheson continued of the senior and junior varsity teams. “They wanted to be active in a sport, and with all of the uncertainty with the pandemic… It wasn’t like that in August, but every week, our numbers would grow.”
And with registration numbers hopefully set to grow again for the 2021 season this fall, Acheson is happy to be able to credit the merits of the sport as the No. 1 reason.
“Football is the ultimate team sport and it teaches you so much about life and how to work with other people,” he explained. “Once kids get involved and have a good experience with it, it really sticks. All our new guys had a super-positive experience, and now they are all chomping to get back at it. When something is taken away and you get it back, you have a new appreciation for it, and understanding that has been super-positive.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE COACHES GONE?
Schools need to value the importance of their high school coaches.
In so many instances, where lifetime impact is involved, the lessons they glean from their team experiences and from their coaches, has a staying power that usurps their classroom experience.
Yet the impact of these coaches continues to be marginalized by so many within the education system.
“As a system, we need to do more to put value on the work that our coaches do, in particular, the role of the teacher-coach, which unfortunately is part of a dying breed,” states Bell, vice-principal at Abbotsford’s Robeert Bateman Secondary. “We need to systematically figure out ways to get more teachers involved in coaching because there is no doubt about the impact they have on kids and the impact it has on school sports.”
Brian Brady is a teacher and the head coach of the B.C. Double-A Coastal championship football team at North Vancouver’s Carson Graham Secondary.
Ask him about the impact a coach can have within a high school sports environment, and in particular a football program, and you can understand why he and all of his coaching peers around the province believe so strongly in the importance of their extra-curricular, volunteer work with student-athletes.
“I think if districts and schools begin to support and celebrate volunteer coaches, I think it would help,” Brady said.
“I don’t think there is anything like playing high school sports, to sit next to someone in class, eat lunch together, and then go out and work towards a big idea or goal, and really push yourself out of your comfort zone.
“The great thing about high school sports is surrounding yourself with your peers and really wonderful mentors — volunteers or teacher-coaches — who surround them with positive reinforcement, and as role models give them someone to look up to. But also with high school sports, working towards something and you can put hard work in and see results, even in a short time period.
“In high school sports, football in particular, you can see a massive difference from the start of practice the end of the practice where it just clicks, and that is what I always liked about the game, that instantaneous response.”
Which brings us back to the root causes, which upon careful examination, aren’t as tangled as we might believe.
“The pandemic has affected adults in a lot of different ways,” observes Lalji when asked about the coaching shortage. “There’s scheduling, everyone’s financial reality is different. There are layers to it and I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations.
“But schools need to make it easier for coaches to coach, to give them as much support as they can so they can make a difference in kids’ lives. They can’t put up barriers. I would imagine the coaching numbers rise as we get back to whatever the new normal is.”
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