Our soccer club in downtown Manhattan has a coaching staff from across the world, reflecting the diversity of New York City. It is no surprise that there are a wide rage of opinions as to how to approach winning. The one thing we all agree on as coaches is that we don't like to lose. It hurts. It stings. Winning is important to us; whether in soccer, Old Maid or ping pong. Nobody enjoys to lose.
To kick off the debate that surrounds winning & losing, it is important to be very clear that youth sports is different to professional sports. Pro sports are all about winning championships, selling tickets and filling stadiums. It is about winning at all costs. Setting a good example for young players is certainly not top of most professional team's agenda.
Youth sports should be about long term development of the athlete on and off the field. Sports give young people an opportunity to learn lessons on the field that also set them up for success in life. Statistically high school athletes have a 7% chance of obtaining a college sports scholarship, 2% chance for a division I program and less than 1% to secure a professional contract. In reality very few players, no matter their high skill level, will actually make a full time career out of soccer. Of course we don't communicate these facts to our players. We fill them with hope, daring them to dream the impossible and stay committed. We temper expectations as they get older, educating them on the need for an academic support structure.
The challenge is that the distinction between professional & youth sports is becoming increasingly blurred. Youth soccer is getting more competitive. We have more leagues, tournaments and "elite" programs than ever before. Our role as parents, coaches and educators is to ensure we keep the real objective of youth sports in plain sight.
A winning mindset is one where players always work hard, handle setbacks, show courage, try new things, attempt to achieve the goals their coach has set, treat their teammates/coaches/opponents/officials with respect, remain coachable, learn from mistakes and are constantly looking to get better.
If this attitude is constantly, proactively reinforced and built into the culture of the team, it will eventually become part of each player's DNA. This will set them up for success on and off the field. Sooner or later the by-product of a winning mindset will begin to show itself on the scoreboard.
The one thing I attempt to instill and encourage with the parents of my players is patience. My u9 girls team are all progressing at different rates. I admit at times I wish they were all at the same level because that would make my life as a coach much easier! Emotionally, cognitively and physically each girl is developing at their own unique pace. Without patience our perspective can quickly become short-sighted. On game day, if our team is losing we can often miss the real growth that is happening out on the field, instead we are sucked into the frenzy of trying to win the game (and get one up on the opposing parents).
Is winning important? Yes absolutely!
Especially to the players - whether aged 4 or 18, players know the scoreline at any given moment! There's no shame in a team setting out out to win, in fact they should always do that. However as coaches and parents we need to use our educational skills to shift the emphasis away from just the score.
Just focusing on the final result means we only look at the outcome, not the process. We miss all the teachable moments that the game provides us with. The end result doesn't tell us the whole story (it's not even cliff notes). It fails to acknowledge the effort, creativity, bravery, teamwork and the respect poured out on the field. On the reverse, we all know teams, or have played on teams, where a win has felt like a loss. US Soccer's Player Development Initiatives (PDIs) back up this notion by not promoting the score be kept until age 17.
As parents and coaches let's be passionate about developing players who are competitive and who strive to win; yet more importantly we should be embracing the opportunities that soccer gives us to teach invaluable life lessons. This window that allows us to speak positively into the lives of young players isn't going to be open forever.
Players should step out onto the field prepared to do their very best. This is what having a winning mindset is all about; a mindset where they work hard, compete, try new things, learn from mistakes, play creatively, overcome adversity, display respect and are team players. If we create better soccer players with a solid base for success, we will also be creating young men & women who are prepared for the challenges that that lives will present them with.
If, as a parent, you find yourself getting too concerned about winning and losing, perhaps you should look at signing yourself up for an adult soccer league, or maybe a season ticket for your local team. Not focusing on the score is a learned skill. It isn't easy. Trust me I battle with it all the time. After the game, attempt to steer the conversation away from the score; How do you think you played? How do you think the team did? What did you do well? How can you get better for next week?
No doubt life is competitive. Regardless of the final score, as parents and coaches we want to help players to develop a winning mindset, to work hard and to compete to be the best they can be on & off the field.