Coaching to Win.

It is common in youth sports to find coaches whose desire to win now trumps what is good for both the game and its participants in the longer term.  Soccer is certainly no exception to this malady.  Coaches left to their own devices would prefer to play only the best players in pursuit of wins, especially against difficult competition. This has given rise to the winning versus development debate that rages on incessantly. I do not believe development and winning to be mutually exclusive.

For me, the fear of failing manifested through losing is at the root of this debate. This is odd logic in the context of mistakes being considered the stepping stones to success. Mankind's greatest successes often arise from the ashes of trial and error failures. In soccer terms, it is considered acceptable to score on 1 of every 10 shots. That is a ratio of nine failures to 1 success.

In a sense, I think we overvalue winning and undervalue losing.  By "we" I mean adults involved in youth sports. The level of competition between parents often seems to exceed that between actually participants in the game. Parental self-worth seems to be tied to a child's success or lack thereof on the playing field. It's "keeping up with the Jones' " on the most basic of levels but the stakes seem to be very high, far higher than a won / loss record could ever measure.

I was at a garage sale recently and overheard a discussion amongst a group of ladies. They were playing the one-up-manship game in regards to their children and grandchildren. Each lady who commented had to one-up the previous ladies story of her offspring.  As kids we did this all the time. It usually started out about toys and progressed until we were comparing fathers to one another to prove who was the most successful. There was a need to feel better about one's self through making someone else feel inferior to your position.  Bullying 101 in a sense.

Those coaches who must win at all cost in the arena of youth sports are bullies in a sense. Trust me when I say I have heard or lived all manner of experiences where a coach tries to justify winning.  Think about that concept for a minute. There does, at times, actually exist a need to justify winning in youth sports. 

* A coach does not play everyone on the roster because he is afraid weaker players will inhibit his teams chances for winning.

* A coach tells a player not to report for a game or "forgets" to notify a player of a match against a strong opponent it pursuit of increasing his chances of winning.

* A coach plays everyone, but attempts to "hide" the weakest players in positions where they will have the least impact on the game. A "new" position might even be created for weaker players to help improve his chances for winning.

* A coach sends players off to practice their skills as a warm up in the middle of a game and then conveniently forgets hey are present so he doesn't have to play them.

* A coach tries to make a player quit coming to games by actually telling him soccer is his sport and suggesting he try something else. He thins the herd by culling out weaker players all in the pursuit of wins.

* A coach orchestrates a coach / parent confrontation to anger the parents enough to remove their child from the team. 

* During a drafting process, a coach refuses to take any more players despite players being available because he believes the players left will bring down the performance of his team.

These are but a few of the scenarios I have witnessed in 30 years of coaching youth sports. All are true.  That should be frightening to all reading this article.

I relate these instances not because I am against playing to win nor because I am an advocate of the everyone plays / every gets a trophy mentality that became pervasive in youth sports at one time. As with most things in life it is the extremes these two positions represent that is reprehensible. What I do advocate is a proper balance between playing to win and playing to develop. This, I think, is rooted in one's perspective of mistakes including an occasionally loss.

Three ideas about mistakes.

1) Own up to them
2) Learn from them
3) Do not repeat them

Many of the examples of inappropriate coaching provided above deal with fear about making mistakes.  They are examples of a coach fearing a weaker player will make a mistake of commission or by omission that will cause his team to lose the game.

Fear has two meanings.

Forget Everything And Run

Face Everything And Rise

The coach who must win at all cost is the one running from his true duties and responsibilities as a coach. He seeks only to teach part of the curriculum which is the life lessons of youth sports.

I saw John again recently. You may recall his story from from my contribution to the Soccer Memory series. John has a job bagging groceries. I watched struggle a bit, but he got-r-dun! I thought back to the privilege of having coached John for a brief period. I will always believe John taught me as much if not more than I taught him.  Those coaches who place winning unduly high on their priority list miss out on the awesome experience of having a player like John as part of the their team.  We developed players and improved as a team throughout the season eventually playing for a championship with John an integral part of it all. More importantly we developed people who have gone on to bigger responsibilities and better lives.

I am the most competitive person you are likely to ever encounter in your life.  I hate losing more than I love winning. Yet, I never discuss results with my teams. We focus solely on getting better each time we step onto the pitch. When training is done for the day the only questions that matter are these; 1) Are we better than we were 90 minutes ago and 2) Did we have fun improving? If we can answer Yes! to both questions, winning will take care of itself.

We are only as strong as the weakest player on our team.

The examples provided above all reference a coach attempting to weed out weaker players or at least limit the impact they might have on the outcome of a game.  I have watched such teams practice and it is typical for the "best" players to get the majority of repetitions during drill work and they never come off the pitch when the team plays small-sided games. When their are extra players than required by an activity or a SSG, it is always the weaker players who begin as spectators and receive limited time in the activity - almost as an afterthought or as if the coach feels some level of obligation to include them.  Think of the message that sends to the players. How can we expect our team to improve when the weakest players are given the least amount of opportunities to improve?

Next Man Up.

The best teams have quality depth.  When a starter goes down with injury or misses time with illness the philosophy of next man up comes into play. The great coaches make sure to prepare substitutes for their moment. Think back to the examples provided above. If a star player went down on one of those teams it's likely the coach would have considered the season lost, that no one could replace the lost star.

I remember one season of high school soccer when we lost player after player to injury and illness.  Our roster was devastated. At one point we were down to 12 healthy players. My approach was not to lament or bemoan our terrible streak of misfortune. Other than to express our concern for the injured and ill we never really discussed their absence from the team.  We inserted the next man up and continued playing games. We ended up having the best season in school history up to that time. An unbelievable success story in the face of all that we faced made possible because we focused on developing all members of the team equally.

Most Improved Player

Why do you suppose Most Improved Player awards are given out?  Perhaps a better question might be to refer back to the above examples once again and ask if any of those coaches would give a Most Improved Player award to a member of his team?  For me, the most important award I present is the MIP award. It is my expectation it will be hotly contested. It s my expectation that this player will likely play a vital role in the teams success. This is the player you originally counted on in a limited role, but who improved so significantly by the end of the season had far surpassed expectations.


I have provided two very distinctly different portrayals of coaches in this article.  I submit that both are coaching to win. One is simply doing it in a far more intelligent and thoughtful manner than the other. One of the lasting lessons from my experience in corporate finance is the importance of setting short term, mid-range and long term goals. I do this with my team and each player on the team. I do it with my assistant coaches as well. Are we improving?  Is each player improving.  If not, why?  Sometimes I have to change teaching methodology or tactics to better reach the student to get the desired result aka improvement.  Again, I know wins will come through development, through improvement.

Foul John

I remember that one youth basketball coach who singled out John.  When his team was on offense, he tried to get his best player matched up on John.  When the game was close in the the fourth quarter I heard him call out to his team to foul John.  Good strategy, perhaps.  There was a fair amount of outrage from some who thought John and his team was being taken advantage of. John's disabilities were deemed fair game by the opposing coach / team. All in pursuit of a flimsy trophy for winning a recreational youth basketball league?

Before you judge too harshly consider for a moment your own choices. Last minutes of a tied overtime match. It's going to penalty kick shootout to determine the winner. Do you make sure you have all your best pk shooters in the game so they can participate?  What about your best goalkeeper?

My teams discuss and identify the opponents weakest player at halftime of every match and we attempt to gain favorable match ups against him.  Nothing wrong with this, is there?

Again it is a matter of perspective.

There's nothing wrong with coaching to win as long as a proper approach to doing so is at work. That proper approach must be based in developing individual players... all individual players on the team.  It's an inclusive approach over an exclusive approach to coaching that ignites passion and fuels development ... and winning.

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