Canadian Sport Instute

Duff Gibson’s Dark Horse

Welcome back to Legacy Link, our series profiling former Canadian Sport Institute Calgary athletes and their enduring impact in our community. This week features 2006 Olympic Champion in skeleton, Duff Gibson.

The moment Duff Gibson knew that something was wrong with youth sport in Canada was when his youngest son, who was eight at the time, said to him after a hockey game, “my coach takes this way too seriously.” His son had witnessed the coach yell aggressively at his players and grab them by the shirt collar.

It was a surprising and disheartening comment from his son, who Gibson describes as an assertive, spirited and capable athlete who occasionally needs to be reined in. Having just returned from the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, where he served as head coach of Canada’s skeleton team, it was somewhat of a revelation for Gibson, too.

“I had a realization where I had just come from the highest level of sport, coaching a successful team and we conducted ourselves in a certain way,” he says. “What we were witnessing with eight-year olds and their coaches would never have been tolerated at the Olympic level.”

The irony struck Gibson hard. The 2006 Olympic Champion thus embarked on a journey deep into youth sport. “I did a lot of thinking and reading,” recalls Gibson. What he learned was that young athletes who specialize in one sport at age ten are quitting at age twelve and never play the sport again. “It’s completely backwards the way it’s set up.”

Gibson, who is also a Calgary firefighter, wanted to create a different, better path for young athletes, one that emphasized fun, skill development, effort and improvement. In January 2016, Dark Horse Athletic was born.

“We created a program that I think is a very good physical education program,” proclaims Gibson. But while Dark Horse, offered to kids aged 7-14, originally started out as a multi-sport program that taught basic skills – something that kids simply couldn’t get anywhere else – it evolved quickly into something much more than just learning how to dribble a basketball.

“Through observing the system through my own kids’ eyes, where, in different contexts, we give our kids such a consistent, subtle and constant message that winning is important, I saw that we end up simultaneously teaching them to be disappointed and humiliated when they don’t win,” laments Gibson.

Gibson, himself a multi-sport athlete who reached a high level in many sports before breaking through in skeleton, was palpably frustrated by this emphasis on winning and the impact it has on Canada’s youth. “What is the motivation for them?”

In contrast, Norway, a small country of 5.3 million that won 39 medals at the recent winter Olympics, has developed a nation-wide sport system for youth based on fun and participation. There is competition but there is no scorekeeping or prize giving until age 13. The focus instead is on the intrinsic value of sport.

The emphasis on winning in youth sport in Canada spurred Gibson to take a similar approach with Dark Horse. “This really affected the way we run the program now,” he explains. “The focus is on simply getting better, improving and the inherent joy felt in accomplishing small goals that are not connected to winning.”

At the end of every session the groups come together to acknowledge the kids who achieved a personal best, or tried the hardest, with a simple clap. Rachel Sawyer, whose three hockey-and-baseball-playing children have all participated in Dark Horse since day one, marvels at how excited they are to earn that clap.

“If I could motivate my kids at home with a clap…” she laughs. “But at Dark Horse that’s what they strive for. It’s a skill to be able to get a group of kids to understand that message.”

At first Sawyer’s kids were excited to go because some of the coaches are Olympians and they were awestruck about meeting them, but as it went on they just had so much fun. “They don’t realize the strength they are building when they are doing it,” says Sawyer, adding, “there is an extremely wide range of kids in the program, but everyone fits in. It doesn’t matter how good you are or aren’t.”

Dark Horse has recently expanded to offer elementary school programs that address what Gibson has come to realize is a major gap in skill development at younger ages, too. “Not only is the youth sport system fundamentally flawed, but the education system is broken too,” he says.

Citing the lack of physical education specialists in elementary schools, where instead teachers are responsible for all subjects including gym, despite having no or inadequate qualifications for teaching even basic athletic skill, Gibson says more work needs to be done. “We are missing the key window for skill development at the right age.”

Gibson’s latest endeavour through Dark Horse is to develop a series of online tutorials for teachers and students featuring Olympic athletes demonstrating skills like how to dribble a basketball or set a volleyball. The athletes also show incorrect technique, so teachers can learn what to watch for as their students practice.

Gibson’s long-term vision is ultimately to transform the youth sport system in Calgary, and Canada. Given the success in Norway, it’s certain he is on the right track. But he needs buy-in beyond the 300 kids and their parents who have been through Dark Horse so far.

“If it became common knowledge that the point of physical education is fun, that’s what we want,” he stresses. “People forget the whole point of doing this and the sport system is designed to somehow create a twelve-year-old world champion. They forget the ‘why’. The why is it’s supposed to be fun.”


Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover

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