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Winning vs. Development (Part 1)

Back in the 1990’s, a famed sports psychologist polled kids about their motivations for playing soccer. The study became a classic in youth sports and served to wake up overbearing parents and coaches. To paraphrase, they found the number one reason kids played soccer was to have fun. Second, they played to be with friends. Another reason was to learn new skills. Far enough down the list to be remarkable in its position was playing because they liked winning. Sure enough, the article became the gospel for rationality when dealing with youth soccer.

However, anyone who knows kids understands how complex their definitions of the above reasons can be. Take “having fun” and break it down into kid-defined components. One could argue that though it was the number one reason to play soccer, really it was the blending of all other reasons. Without any one of the other reasons, “having fun” diminished. So, understanding kids means understanding that in order to have fun, they have to be with friends, learning new skills and engaging in a valued experience.

Does winning enhance the value of the experience for kids? The answer is not an unqualified yes. A few years back, I was coaching director for a suburban soccer club. For the under 10 team, I selected a proven coach with winning ways. The coach had previously keyed success in a young age group team. Both the president of the club and I agreed about the importance of building the club from the bottom up, so this coach made sense to be the builder for six to eight years of club success.

On announcement of the coaching roster, the president and I had telephones ringing off the hook. How could we put such a monster in charge of ten year olds? Didn’t we know this coach screamed at eight year olds? Sure, his teams won tournaments, but at what cost? Chief among the detractors was a mom who had just received her “F” license. The parents of the ten year olds pulled out and tried to go to another club. When rebuffed there, they came back and demanded change. So, the president and I gave the F licensed mom the job of coach. The team formed, played and seemed to have fun. Five years later, another one of the moms from that group became president of the club. To make a long story short, one should never overestimate the value of winning to a group of players and parents.

More important in sustaining kids’ participation in sports is the quality of the coach. Even as much as having Landon Donovan junior on a team may be valuable, more important to kids’ desire to participate is having Coach Perfect. Coach Perfect knows how to talk with kids, enhance their skills and maintain a positive experience. I once worked at a college with a Coach Perfect. Despite taking over a team that had been at the top of the conference and won several regional titles, this coach’s teams merely finish in the top third of the conference. Yet, the coach’s mannerisms and personal qualities keep the team engaged and feeling successful. Former players cite Coach Perfect as their key influence during their college experience.

Winning may draw a few kids away to another team, but I would wager that the fun they have with Coach John would override for most kids. Their fun involves being with friends, interacting with Coach John, learning new skills and the icing on the cake is the winning. The idea that another coach has more winning ways or better players would certainly attract some, but parents know value and word gets around. Providing the valuable experience includes fine technical development, certainly, but “having fun” involves many other factors, including Coach John’s positive, future oriented style. Dale Carnegie once said it was important to believe in yourself and your eventual success. In soccer coaching, one has to believe one’s methods will win out even as the team eventually learns to win on the field.

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