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  • Writer's pictureDavid Thibodeau

Challenges and Opportunities for Sports in Big and Littles Cities

I've been fortunate enough to swim and coach in two provinces and two very different cities. I started coaching in Fredericton, NB and am currently coaching in Ottawa, ON. I wanted to use this platform to talk about my experiences coaching in these cities to show some of the opportunities and challenges that come with sports in big cities and small cities.

Fredericton has a population of just over 50,000 people. It’s the third largest city in the province of New Brunswick. I’ll start with the opportunities that come from being an athlete in the province. Being on a smaller team allowed me to have more attention from the coach which allowed me to develop more as an athlete. I actually moved from Milton, ON to Fredericton after grade 10, so my observations are from the differences in age group swimming from Ontario to New Brunswick. When I moved to New Brunswick, I was suddenly in an environment where I was more valued as an athlete. In Ontario I was just a swimmer in the background, not to discredit my coaches who were really good, but there were more swimmers so their attention was divided.

I was able to compete at the Canada Games for team NB in 2013, an opportunity that never would have happened if I had been in Ontario. This event really changed the course of my life.

As a coach in NB I saw that the program was able to accommodate athletes of various skills and levels. Even if they weren’t the best swimmer, there was a place for them. Coaching in Ontario I find that there is more of a focus on higher performing athletes and there is less space in programs for athletes whose skills aren’t as advanced as others. With programs filled to capacity it’s hard to focus on what sport is all about: participation.

This is a really big opportunity for smaller cities and a challenge for bigger cities: trying to prioritize participation.

One challenge for a smaller province and smaller towns is attracting high level coaches to their teams. In smaller towns this challenge is magnified. I’ve seen many cases where a parent will take on the role of the coach. This parent may have no background in swimming at all. They may be a very good coach, but swimming is a very technical sport and having experience and knowing all of the rules is very important. Anyone can learn but I would think that having experience as an athlete makes a coach better.

Ottawa has a population of 1,000,000 people (not including Gatineau’s population). By my count there are four 50m polls in the National Capital Region (Ottawa and Gatineau). I believe there are only four 50m pools in all four Atlantic provinces, two of them are located in Halifax. In 2016, Swim Canada announced it’s Competition Improvement Plan. This policy introduced some qualifying standards like only long course times are eligible for qualification into Swim Canada events.

While this policy is made to improve Canada’s ranking in swimming, it does not take into account regional challenges. There is only one 50m pool in New Brunswick (in Saint John), a three hour drive for some of the northern teams. Those teams do not like having to drive to Saint John or to Halifax for all long course meets. This presents a challenge for New Brunswick. When you have a few high level athletes who need long course meets to qualify, but none of them are on teams from the northern part of the province, they do not support having every meet for the second half of the season three hours away.

Not having a big population to support infrastructure is a challenge for smaller provinces and smaller communities.

Currently in Fredericton the only competition pool is slated for demolition, and a replacement is only being talked about, no concrete action has been taken to start building. Despite knowing the need for a new facility for over ten years, nothing has been done. The current situation in Fredericton could have easily been avoided with proper planning. Being in a big city you will never have an issue with access to a facility.

Another challenge for a small province is having to travel everywhere for competitions. This adds many costs to families makes it difficult for some to be able to participate. Most of the competitions the team I coach for in Ottawa go to are in Ottawa. I’m sure this is similar for other sports in the maritimes.

Sport policy must take into consideration the challenges that small provinces face. When creating national strategies for improving performance we must keep in mind how we can improve all regions and not just those already excelling. All Canadians should have the same access to quality programming.


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