Friday, February 11, 2011

To Win Or Not To Win....

News has broken over the last couple of days that minor soccer associations in both Winnipeg and Calgary will be eliminating scoring in soccer. Well not really, but that’s how the respective media, the Winnipeg Press “ Soccer Set to be Score Loser” and the CBC “Scoreless Soccer Considered for Calgary” decided to set up the story of shifting focus from competition do development at the younger ages of the game.

Immediately, thanks in large part to the headlines, the naysayers jumped on with this is political correctness gone mad retort, there is no need for this, we’re trying to “wussify” our children and finally we’re going beat the competiveness out of them.

Nonsense. The idea behind the move is nothing of the sort. What is being attempted is to get coaches and parents of players, this has little to do with the players, to be less focused on the winning of trophies, where U8s are in the standings and who is leading the scoring race and more accepting of the idea that players need to learn to play the game well before they learn to compete.

Learning to compete is a bit of a red herring to me – this has always been the silliest notion ever put forward to me as a coach – I believe we are all born competitive, it is part of our nature as humans and while some are more competitive than others and competitiveness can be refined to say that we need to spend valuable training time teaching this to 8 to 11 year olds is nonsense.

At these ages what we do need to focus on is the development of individual skills – intensely and exclusively. This is where the competition versus learning approaches start to clash and people tend to lose the plot and fail to see that developing players is a (very) long term process – not something that happens by the age of fourteen.

There reasons for players dropping out of sport at the ages of 13/14 have been extensively studied with the main reasons given for “dropping out” being fairly consistent from study to study:

• Lack of Playing Time
• Overemphasis on Winning
• Other Activities are more interesting
• Lack of Fun
• Coaching/Adult Behaviors
• Dissatisfaction with Performance
• Lack of Social Support

Notice that only one of these elements, other activities are more interesting, are not controlled by the adults. All the others are a direct reflection of an over emphasis on results and winning.

The players understand there are winners and losers what they don’t understand is why when their team is winning (or losing) by four goals why they are still on the bench.

They don’t understand why their parents are so disappointed with a loss and the focus on them “trying harder” the next time.

They don’t like or understand “drills” where they are forced to stand in line and wait their turn before getting a chance to play.

They don’t understand parents and coaches screaming at them, opponents and referees and then asking later, “Did you have fun?” Um, really?

It does not need to be this way but unfortunately for the majority of children in our sport this is the way it is – there is an over emphasis on winning and teams over developing players.

They know what the score is, they like to win, who doesn’t? But they are confused by the mixed messages they receive from the sidelines demand they win, it’s okay to lose, try harder, have fun, get better, listen to their coach, listen to them… a confusing mess for most if not all nine year olds.

Unfortunately while many of the adults talk the talk they refuse to walk the walk and the only way to get the attention of the coaches and parents and their over fascination with winning is to mandate a lesser focus on competition. In effect, while winning and losing are part of sport that at these younger ages it should not be the only measure we use in determining if a player is developing and if a program is successful.

Some day the adults will figure it out.



  1. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Who's trying to fool who here? Ten-year-olds know how to count, and can tell the difference between a team that performs well, and one that doesn't.

    In just about any human pursuit there are, and should be, measurements of success in place -- be they grades in school, points scored in a game of scrabble, or the number of goals each team scores in a soccer match.

    In establishing different teams within a club's age group, the parameters are already set for competitive play -- and by competitive, I mean that each side has the objective of succeeding more often than the opponent in putting the ball into the net.

    I agree that there is far too much focus from the adults (coaches/parents) on winning, and that in regular house league play there is no need for standings to be kept. I also believe that the value of the many individual skills needed to play the game must be reinforced. A great dribble, a "heads-up" back pass or switch, or a nice through ball into space need to be recognized just as much as a goal. In learning to value all of the elements of successful play, young players gain a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the game -- and can consequently see the point in working on their technical abilitites.

    However, in taking away the objective of the game -- at least as seen from a kid's perspective -- there's not much point in being on the field.

    If the number of training sessions need to be increased in order to develop young players, then that's what should happen. But to place two teams on the same field and ask them to do the equivalent of practice under the guise of a "game" is disingenuous.

  2. It's not as you point out it's not about the score. It's not even about standings. But it is about the attitude of too many folks involved in the game who place much too much emphasis on winning. This seems to be the only way to get their attention.

    The kids, parents and coaches themselves will of course keep score and will play to win but let's get the priority on training and development where it belongs.

  3. I have to say the biggest problem with the sport in this country is the attitude that Bill speaks about.

    That quest for the trophy,- that seems to be omnipotence in 95% of all clubs- is doing more harm to the athlete than good. Winning doesn't have to be emphasized to an elite athlete. It's in them. What they need to be shown the technical skill, the tactical side of the game, the work rate and the hardcore training routine that must become a lifestyle for them. Those attributes will make them attractive to coaches and programs at the next level. I have never been asked by an NCAA coach “How many trophies and championships has player X won?” I have been asked “ Are they tactically astute?” “ How smart are they as a player?” “Can they handle the pace of the NCAA?”

    Personally I keep hearing that we need to spend more money on coaches at the grass roots level. I won’t spend a single dime on the grassroot coach. It’s a waste. The turnover is too high. We need to spend more money on the elite coach. We need more B and A licence coaches who can take over OYSL and LSEQ teams for example and develop players and not trophy cases. We are never going to change the hockey dads who spend their summers coaching soccer. We are never going to change the parent club president who simply wants more kids playing on more fields. It is what it is. A nice diversion from being trapped inside a rink.

    We set back soccer when we ignored what Holger Osiek was saying in 2001. Which basically was - to be an elite soccer nation, it doesn't matter whether you have 400 or a million registered players. It’s what you do with the elite group of players from the age of 14 that matters. And on that front we fail. We need better regional teams and provincial leagues. We need to end the promotion relegation system in leagues like the OYSL. We need elite training centres. We need better funded identification of talent methods.

    We don’t need more trophies handed out. Less actually. Make it that when you win a trophy it actually has meaning. You shouldn't win a trophy for practising once a week and winning a local u-9 tournament.

    That’s worth an ice cream mum and dad.

  4. Goodness! Where to start?
    First of all, I'll affirm what has already been said by Bill. The emphasis on winning at the development level, up to U-12 or 13 in my opinion, is not necessary and you can apply that to ANY sport, not just soccer.
    Sure, competitiveness is natural, but you don't need a scoreline or a table of standings to bring that out in kids. If we were able to scrutinize statistics on this, I am sure we would see that most competitive players will self identify by the age of 14 or 15. Conversely, we would see very few of the opposite extreme where kids quit due to excess pressure and negative feedback from parents and coaches. It only stands out so prominently in our minds because it is rare and an extreme position.
    So what to do? Give them a ball, each, and teach them to run and play with it. Hmmm, running and playing eh? Sound like something most kids are adept at? You can teach them just about everything they need to know about playing, and being pretty good at, soccer without ever running a "drill" right up to the 12 and 13 age groups. That's where work rate and work ethic come into it. At 14 and 15, passing patterns, through balls, commitment etc. NONE of this is necessary prior to these ages.
    We do not need more training sessions to improve skills. I fact, we need FEWER! What we need is to encourage play. Individual, unorganized play where the kids determine the conditions. Seems to work pretty well in Africa and Brazil. And the countries that have systems most similar to our? England, Ireland, Scandinavia? How are they doing at producing talent???
    Okay, so we don't need to invest, financially, in grass roots coaching, but what we do need to do is invest more time supporting them. Getting our better coaches to show our invaluable volunteers how soccer is so easy, if you just give them each a ball, make them run around and have lots of goals to shoot at!

    Soccer is a simple game, over complicated by coaches, administrators and parents.