In any youth sport, the emphasis needs to be on development in these early years. Results? Not important. Developing the child, keeping them engaged and enjoying their sport is paramount. That is fairly well understood and accepted.
Parents and coaches act as buyer and seller, making an apparent agreement that the child’s development via their enjoyment will always be the priority. However what often invariably ends up happening is the adult ego rears its head and the demands and questions relating to winning make an unwelcome appearance in these early ages.
It seems like for many, soon as the players are on a field against an opponent sporting a different colored jersey, the need to win bubbles under the surface like an awakening volcano with increasing spurts of impassioned cries uncontrollably exploding out throughout the course of the game instructing this action or that. Sometimes in extreme cases from both sidelines (parents and coaches) and from both teams!
Truthfully, it does not matter about the ‘quality’ level of the child. The prestige level of the team, club or organization the child is attached is of minimal significance. Nothing is decided in formative years, only that the child could actually drop out! What does matter though that the child is playing in an environment conducive to their age and related mindset.
At whatever level, the child is playing to have fun first and foremost. No child picked up any ball for the very first time and thought ‘I’m going to have my face on billboards and have my own clothesline’. (That may come in time!) But in reality, a child plays with their pals. They play to be part of a team. To experiment and learn new skills. Yes to win. But not over the other things mentioned.
Coaches more so than parents are guilty of chasing wins. This is seen the manner in which some attach themselves to the quality of their team’s on the field success and take this as a representation of their own success. This is simply not accurate. There are so many uncontrollable variables at play that decide any given result. But moreover, it is the players that are doing the playing, and therefore are experiencing the winning, losing or drawing firsthand. Yes the coach had an input but ultimately it was the players’ that did what they did. Credit cannot be taken.
Many coaches in their early years are recent retired sportsmen (of varying abilities!) Leaving behind that ultra competitive environment where pride and ego are almost tangible from the sidelines does not come easy. Especially when the nature of their new environment they are entering as a young coach demands almost the opposite characteristics.
Empathy, patience, persistence, composure, gratitude, appreciation just to mention a few need to be present on a daily basis. Yes some of these characteristics are seen within adult sporting environments, but often they are either not consistently present or only present in the very elite environments.
But I get it, it is difficult to come from an adult playing environment where results are all that matter to one where they should not really take any precedent at all. But if coaches want to coach children and more importantly have an impact, they must earn the respect of their young players. This is done by being consistent in their messages throughout the session, the weeks, months, many tournaments and the season overall. No grey areas, no going back on your word. Children are smart and know when they’re being taken for a ride.
This message needs to be one of acknowledgement met with firmness:
‘Yes winning is a great feeling, but development is what matters right now.’
Learning through enjoyment and not chasing wins is how we develop these kids longer term and as coaches we must let go of our need for validation from our players’ victories to satisfy our egos. Let that weak neediness go. We are not our team’s results. Ever.
Others will ask players, the coach and those associated with the team; ‘how did you do?’ Obviously fishing for the result. But that one off snapshot is no real representation of the direction of the team overall. This is why when I get asked for results at youth level I always add extra detail about the performance. Did we get what we deserve or not. Maybe the questioner was looking for just a numerical soundbite but they will always get context if they ask me. The nature of a performance shows the direction of development. NOT the result.
Players are showing themselves to be more mature than their coach if the coach has attached their ego to match results, which as we know are uncontrollable outcomes. If you ask a child, they will be clear and honest and tell you with no hesitation what they are playing their sport for. So as the coach its up to you to do the same and then some. We must be strong walls of comfort and credibility with a clear and consistent message from day one.
Myself personally, when working with my younger players am up front as soon can be. I let them know it goes like this;
I like winning, but it’s not our primary focus.
Our focus is on learning the game; learning to master the ball, learning to enjoy working hard, learning to play as part of a team, learning to appreciate victory and defeat and learning to control our thoughts.
If we do all this we cannot help but win.