Youth Soccer- To Win or Not to WinPosted: June 25, 2013
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.