Though the Sea to Sky corridor will likely forever be known as a hotbed of skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking, there is a reason why soccer is known as the beautiful game. Simple, ubiquitous and accessible, it is capable of retaining players and fans in areas dominated by other sports—like Spud Valley.
When COVID-19 first emerged in 2020, Pemberton Youth Soccer Association (PYSA) president Robbie Stevens was one of many left scratching his head. Back then, Stevens felt that local soccer had flatlined, to an extent, and wondered what would happen next.
He and many others were thrilled that fall when the PYSA’s player base grew to 170, a 62-per-cent increase compared to the 105 registrants in fall 2019. Female participation surged by 97 per cent, while male participation went up 41 per cent.
Creating a culture
Momentum has held strong. The PYSA has retained nearly all of those who signed up during the pandemic, and as of 2021 had 185 players between the U6 and U12 age categories. In total, 6.16 per cent of Pembertonians were playing soccer that year—the highest rate in the Sea to Sky, even though soccer programs in Whistler and Squamish accommodate athletes as old as 17.
“It’s up to us to lead as a club and an organization,” said Stevens. “We’re very conscious at the board level of [healthy] culture, and that just doesn’t happen on its own, right? You have to embrace creating your culture and managing it, and we’ve been able to really see that through, continuing to keep soccer exciting and interesting for the kids.”
More than just a board member, Stevens is himself a soccer parent. His son plays on the PYSA’s U11 squad, and his daughter is an alum who has graduated to a development team in Squamish.
Former alpine ski racer Britt Janyk Tilston, a mother of two girls in the club’s U12 and U10 age divisions, is also on the board. The 2010 Canadian Olympian has seen huge growth within Pemberton soccer over the last two years, with many new families signing up and more than 20 girls in the U12 bracket alone.
Tilston has been a volunteer coach for two seasons, witnessing first-hand the positive impact of community soccer on her daughters.
“I get to see my own kids learn the game and be a part of it, and at the same time, get to know the other kids better,” she said. “[Coaching] is definitely a time commitment, but the reward of getting to watch those kids learn and grow with the game makes it worthwhile.”
The PYSA took another step forward on May 6 and 7 by hosting its first “Soccer Jamboree.”
Coaches from Vancouver’s European Football School (EFS) led more than 100 youngsters, including PYSA alumni, in a series of training camps tailor-made for each age group. Tilston and her fellow parent volunteers got their own session as well, thanks to UEFA-certified coach Amar Talic.
According to Stevens, it can be difficult for Sea to Sky soccer clubs to access developmental programs for their coaches, because they are located some distance from Vancouver. Online resources provided by Canada Soccer help, but there’s no substitute for in-person workshops run by qualified individuals like Talic.
Tilston is no stranger to world-class coaching from her alpine skiing heyday, but learning from EFS professionals has equipped her to better mentor her daughters and their teammates.
“[The Jamboree] was a great opportunity,” she said. “As a parent of two kids, there’s a lot going on … and it’s not easy to get to coaching clinics, so the fact that it came to us for that weekend was a great kickoff to the season. And now, we have a few more tools in our pockets to keep things going through the rest of the spring session.”
Having said that, PYSA decision-makers understand that it will almost always be easier for an eight-year-old child to listen to a 17-year-old fellow athlete than a 47-year-old parent volunteer. That’s why they’ve partnered with head coach Mark Freeman of the Whistler Youth Soccer Club (WYSC) to enlist high school-age players as assistant coaches in Pemberton. Roughly half a dozen PYSA alumni contribute to local training sessions on a regular basis.
“When I was racing, if a skier who was a bit better than me came out and shared some of their knowledge, I paid attention a little bit differently,” Tilston said. “So with those teenagers out there, helping out and being a part of our practices, it gives the younger kids someone to look up to.”
Moreover, the Jamboree raised approximately $1,330 for the Pemberton Food Bank, which is enough—according to PYSA treasurer Mark Graham—to feed nearly 60 families at minimum. Other local sponsors, including Mount Currie Coffee Company, Pemberton Valley Supermarket and Pemberton Valley Lodge, also pitched in to ensure the event’s success.
Stevens praised his colleagues, notably community engagement coordinator Christine Cowin, for putting together a successful event. Together, they hope to ensure that the Jamboree becomes an annual tradition in Spud Valley.
“We’ve gotten great accolades and soundbites back from the parents on how much they appreciated this, and they felt that it was a great opportunity for them to connect with other parents,” said Stevens. “It all ties back to that idea of community and how we all depend on each other.”
More information on the PYSA’s summer offerings can be found at pembertonsoccer.sportngin.com.