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The State of High School Sports in British Columbia

When Jordan Abney accepted the position of Executive Director of BC School Sports, he was well aware of the challenges. An absence of athletic director programing, a lack of unified concussion protocol, and a disjointed opinion on the role of athletics in schools, was what he was up against.

Having gone to school in Kelowna, B.C, and being a multi-sport athlete himself, Abney has a vested interest in the well being of high school athletics. “I have always been involved with school sports,” he said of his experience as a student athlete, “[they were] such a big part of my life and had such a positive influence on my life.” So when the opportunity arose for him to get back involved with high school athletics, he jumped at the chance.

A big question surrounds the purpose that athletics have in B.C high schools, and depending on whom you ask, the answer will differ. Abney said “there is such debate with regards to our purpose in developing athletes.” In other provinces, and across the United States, there is a clear understanding of the role that high school sports play in a student’s development, as both an athlete and individual. The U.S high school athletic system exists to develop athletes so they are successful at playing varsity athletics at a college or university level. However, in B.C there is still a debate surrounding how sports should operate in high schools.

“The role that school sport plays now is a complicated answer and it depends on who you ask,” Abney said referencing the varying opinions, “what I think it should be is different from what it is, or what other people think it should be. I think that’s part of the challenge, there isn’t a lot of unity of what the role of school sport is.”

Abney has been facing this “identity crisis” since he took over the role in August of 2016.

BC School sports have around 440 member schools each year, and with 94 thousand students participating in athletics annually, the lack of unity surrounding the subject can’t be ignored.

“I believe that the primary purpose of school sport is to develop young people into quality citizens and future leaders, and use competitive sport as a tool to do that,” Abney said of his opinion, “but doesn’t mean we want to shy away from competition.”

With such a high level of competition spanning the province, provincial rivalries and titles are taken very seriously. It’s Abney’s hope to use the competition as a way to encourage athletes to be better on and off the court.

Much of the controversy, around the purpose of high school athletics and athlete development, was sparked when a well-known high school basketball coach was fired earlier this year, from the empire he had built.

Following complaints from a group of disgruntled parents, B.C Hall-of-Famer, Rich Goulet was asked to leave Pitt Meadows. Goulet had spent 39 years teaching, and coaching high school basketball, and with 1,000 plus wins to his name, he was no novice. Helping develop the likes of Steve Nash, Kelly Olynyk, and Robert Sacre, Goulet was known for his “tough-love” approach, and “old-school” style of coaching, which many players and parents from the current generation don’t often agree with.

Although the complaints against Goulet were never publicly revealed, Goulet suspects the parents were angry about their kid’s lack of playing time.

“Some of these kids don’t want to hear that they don’t have any ability or that their ability is not good enough. High school basketball is a sport where you have to make the team,” Goulet said in an interview with Global News. “You just don’t automatically get on the team, and once you are on the team, there are responsibilities and accountability.”

Goulet at Pitt Meadows, Credit: Wilson Wong, UBC athletics

Paul Eberhardt, the president of the B.C. High School Boys’ Basketball Association, sided with the many parents, athletes, and community members, who were vocal about the lack of respect that the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board showed Goulet when asking him to leave,“the gym at that school should be named after him,” Eberhardt said, referencing the significant amount of money Goulet raised during his career.

It is here that the controversy lies. While Goulet’s coaching style holds merit, it doesn’t align seamlessly with what BC School Sports is aiming to accomplish.

“We recognize that there are athletes who are going to play at the next level, or professionally, but for every one of those athletes there’s a thousand who don’t,” Abney said of the perspective he wants people to keep in mind, “we still want those thousand [who won’t play at the next level] to have the experience and get all the benefits that come with playing sports.”

It’s a tough spot for Abney to be in, because he recognizes that he won’t ever be able to please everyone.

“It’s a tricky balance, because it’s not to say that we don’t promote competition and developing teams to win but it’s understanding that it’s all happening under the overarching umbrella of developing young people in an educational setting.”

Bridging the gap between coaches who are focused solely on developing athletes, and the values BC School Sports aims to instill, is what Abney is aiming to do, but he admits it’s not an easy task.

“We’re seeing more and more educators not coaching, and more community members are stepping into that role,” Abney said of the shift he’s noticed, “when that happens sometimes the purpose shifts from the holistic perspective to just winning championships and developing athletes.”

To try and tie education more closely with athletics, Abney is working on launching an online course for community coaches that will educate them on eligibility rules, problem solving, and values.

While BC School sports won’t be promoting winning, as a singular priority, any time soon, they also openly reject the idea to base high school athletics on the concept of a participation medal, finding a balance is what Abney hopes to do going forward.

Written By: Sarah Reid

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