Youth Soccer- To Win or Not to Win

As  youth soccer has spread in this country one would expect that the hundreds of operating youth leagues would be producing players of ever-increasing quality. As a long time observer of the game in the USA, especially at the youth level, I can tell you that ,overall, this IS happening. But, there are constant complaints that our country isn’t producing enough world-class players. Perhaps this is because we haven’t won the World Cup , at the men’s level anyway. Or because we aren’t feeding the world’s leagues with hundreds of first class players. Perhaps it’s because we still have an inferiority complex about the game (more about this in a future post) and so insist on bringing in “experts” from other countries. And once here, the “experts” have to have something at which to be an “expert”! However, I shouldn’t lay this completely on imported soccer people. Many home-grown soccer “experts” also continually complain about our youth system. And , almost always, the first issue which is brought up is that of “winning” soccer at the youth level and its effect on the development of youth players.

The idea is that youth coaches, in their endeavor to win games, sacrifice the development of technical and tactical prowess of their players. Experts constantly talk about developing quality players as the goal of any worthwhile youth program. I have no problem with that concept. However, they also talk about the concept of attempting to win games as if it were some great disease epidemic which has spread  across America and must be cured before any real quality players emerge from our country. I can remember when a certain MLS team announced its connection with a local club here in Las Vegas. They had several of these so-called experts discuss their philosophy and the first thing they brought up was that winning was not important. Not at U-10, not at U-12 or at u-16, not at any level of youth soccer.

At any level of any endeavor, whether sports or music or writing or moving furniture, there are always those who will tell others how they should do it. Some of these people actually know what they are talking about, many do not. So, who do you listen to, if you are looking for advice? One rule I have always abided by is to look for those who have been successful , who have a proven track record. Or listen to someone who has studied those accomplished persons. Sometimes an individual who has done in-depth work with successful people knows more than the individuals themselves. And when it comes to comes to youth soccer; as soon as I hear “don’t worry about winning”, I question the knowledge and experience of the speaker. Why? Because in this country anyway, anyone who pushes the non-winning philosophy has not spent much time coaching a youth team in a youth league and therefore has not had experience in dealing with youth players AND THEIR PARENTS.

Parents of youth soccer players almost always have two major motivations: 1) they want their child to have fun, to improve and to play significant time in games, 2) they want the team that their child is on to win games. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all the games, but I guarantee you that if a team loses constantly, the parents will question the coach, at any level. Sports players and ,typically their parents, are, by nature, competitive. Put any number of soccer kids into a soccer situation and they invariably compete. If a coach wants to work on a skill, the coach can run a drill, hopefully one which produces many repetitions of the skill in a short period of time. But if the coach wants complete involvement of his/her players, devise a game which  requires that skill and keep score. The only problem with this is that the players sometimes become more concerned with who is winning the game than the development of the skill! Many times I have had to remind my players,” it’s only a practice drill!” ,particularly if I haven’t kept score accurately! And yet, I am supposed to tell these same players AND THEIR PARENTS,” we don’t care about winning!”

The reason that winning has such a bad rap among many, is that often coaches sacrifice the long-term development of their players for the short-term goal of the win. They spend their time emphasizing winning instead of emphasizing playing quality soccer and ironically often hurt their chances of winning in doing so. I can’t count the number of times I have heard opposing coaches berate their teams for ” not wanting it bad enough!” or more commonly,” you are getting beaten to the ball!”. These statements mean (to me anyway),” my team isn’t doing well and I don’t know why and I don’t know what to do about it!”. Rarely, the team just wasn’t very quick, but in almost all cases, they just weren’t prepared. Often I felt sorry for the kids being yelled at as it was obvious that they weren’t in the right places on the field to get to the ball and when they did get the ball they couldn’t control it or didn’t know what to do with it.  In soccer, as in so many fields, taking the long term view pays off eventually – develop the skills, both physically and mentally, and the wins will come. You must “wax on, wax off” before you can win the trophy.(Sorry for the old movie reference!)

My solution to “to win or not to win” is to emphasize that development of the skills of the game is the ultimate goal. Every practice is about improving some aspect of play, as individuals and as a team. The purpose of games is to measure improvement. One must have faith that good soccer over the long haul means winning many games and probably losing some also. If a loss is a springboard to more improvement, the coach and the team are better for it. But simply trying for the win, or simply bashing winning as a philosophy, is too simple for me. The development of ANY skill, in ANY type of effort, is a long term effort of hard work,  with “winning” , in whatever form it comes, as its reward. Don’t knock it.

6 Comments on “Youth Soccer- To Win or Not to Win”

  1. John says:

    As a coach myself, I think that the development of the players is, first and foremost, the most important issue with which to be concerned with.

    However, very few parents will stick around if winning isn’t an integral part of the team. If the team is developing and competitive among the highest competition, then I believe that we are doing our jobs.

    During a recent tryout session for our club, the parents all had the same question, “Is your team the first, second, third, or fourth team in the age group. It doesn’t seem to matter that we are so deep as a club that we can field four competitive teams whereas most clubs have one, maybe two, teams at best.

    Parents want to go to their cocktail parties and remark that their Johnny “Made the FIRST team” at such-and-such club.

    They don’t care that our fourth team would give the first and second teams a run for their money in any game situation.

    Lastly, I have seen great players rejected at clubs because of their parents. Coaches do not need the issues and emotional baggage that some parents bring.

    Being a coach these days requires one to be a Marriage Counsellor, Psychiatrist, Psychologist, Nutritionist, Fitness Guru, and Human Resourse Manager. Oh, and you get about 30 seconds with any one kid to sum up what exactly he/she needs with regards to these specific roles.

    Sort of a bit off topic, but I think that the whole philosophy of “Winning” needs to change in our society before we can move forward to develop international caliber athletes on a consistant basis.


    • socceryoda says:

      John, well said! Coaching , especially on the youth level, does involve much more than simply throwing a ball out there. Again, this is why I believe that it is unrealistic for a youth coach to just,” don’t care about winning”. Winning in the right context has its place and keeps the parents happy, if their child is playing plenty of minutes,:).


  2. Sam St-Phard says:

    I will never forget the anticipation of Saturday Matches in Columbia, Maryland. We practiced hard during the week and we learned our Strategies and did our drills. When Saturday came it was “World Cup” time in our little minds. We competed ferociously between the lines and after the Match, win or lose, we shook the hands of our opponents in a gesture of mutual respect and good sportsmanship. Let there be no doubt, though, that winning was more fun than losing, and our competitive fire came from our love of the game. No one got a Trophy for “participation”, we knew, as did our Parent’s, that in order to acquire a first place Trophy to put on the mantle, we were going to have to EARN it on the Pitch.
    This philosophy and the principles I learned on the pitch as a youth, have translated to my Adult life and made me understand that nothing I really want will ever be given to me. Winning at the youth level, ultimately translates to winning in life. Watering down such an important and valuable life lesson, is detrimental to our youth. Al, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment. In fact, I am a product of the Coaching you and the other Coaches in Columbia, Maryland administered. I am amazed at how many of the kids you, “Columbia Coaches” turned into College Scholarship recipients, State High School Soccer Champions, Professional Soccer Players(Former NASL/MLS & Some Foreign Players), as well as all levels of The United States National Team Program. Beyond that, many of the Columbia Soccer kids from your Era, are now Business leaders and Professionals in their fields of endeavor. This did not happen by accident…I am convinced that it began on the Pitches of Columbia, Maryland. You Coaches did it the Right way…


    • socceryoda says:

      Thanks, Sam! As stated in the post, I believe that top-quality players CAN be produced by coaches who value winning IF those coaches understand that the primary goal is constantly improving the soccer that their players produce and that winning is an outcome of that improvement. The coaches that hurt development are those who push winning as THE goal and who neglect developing the basics of excellent play because they view those basics as irrelevant to winning. And, yes, there are too many of those. BUT to blame “winning” as the culprit and to encourage coaches to forget about it is unrealistic in our society and is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. (Do people still say that?)


  3. Ajule says:

    Good points.
    I have long suspected the phrase “It’s not about winning; it’s how you play the game” has negatively impacted our youth. Those who hear it enough, and believe it, grow into adults who remain comfortably satisfied with the status quo, expecting more to be given to them “out of fairness” instead of by earning it. Certainly they won’t be entreprenuer material. The drive to excel can be taken to the extreme, of course, but a person who strives to be the best, do the best, and stretch to reach goals that others fear to even dream – those are the people who bring success to our entire country. They don’t expect to have what everyone else has just because they feel entitled. Instead, they find ways to attain what they want by working for it.

    I think youth sports can be an effective training ground for the leaders our society and our country needs. That won’t happen if they are not guided by coaches in how to learn and improve their skills instead of simply participating – nor if they are railed against for not winning. As mentioned, perhaps they were not trained to do what it takes to play the game effectively and winningly. Good coaches have the ability to show the value of team effort, commaraderie, hard work and still weave fun into the effort.

    There is no replacing the good feeling a child will get from accomplishing a goal due to his own efforts. It will be an honestly earned self pat on the back. That is a truly good win for any person. Good youth coaches are as crucial to our chidrens’ future success as great school teacher and great parents are. It sounds as if many of you have benefitted from such coaching. What a way to win at life!


    • socceryoda says:

      Ajule, you are absolutely right. And in the soccer world not only do we get the “just have fun, don’t worry about winning” people, we get the “just develop your skills and don’t worry about the score” people also. I have just as much problem with the “trying to win kills individual improvement” thinking as the “if you don’t care about winning, losing won’t hurt” theory. There IS a middle ground where “developing your individual AND team skills will result in significant wins” actually works. The problem is that it takes work, both of a physical and mental nature and too many youth coaches won’t do what is needed. Thanks for the comment!


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