By Tony Earp
Often when talking about development and soccer players, it is assumed you are reducing the importance of trying to win or the will to compete for the players. Since development is the focus, than whether you win or lose is irrelevant, right? No matter what, after each game, everyone is given a gold star, ice cream cone, and patted on the back and told they are great. The kids should feel no different after a loss than they do after a win. Results do not matter, so who cares who won, right? In reality, nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, competition is at the heart of development and learning.
When I was a kid, part of the reason I trained so hard was because I hated to lose. I still to this day despise losing at anything. With that in mind, I also had a coach who made it crystal clear that in order to give myself the best chance to have success, I had to get better. It is not enough to show up at a game and want to win really really really badly. It is not enough to show up and just feel like you can work harder than everyone else on game day and expect to get positive results. From early on, my coaches, and parents, made me earn every ounce of success I had on the field by helping me understand it would be a direct result of what I was learning and how I was improving.
Part of any player’s development is learning how to compete, and what is required to have success on the field. The problem is that kids can be set up and put into situations by adults to have success without earning it, to be set up to win without having to compete. I call it “bumper bowling success.” By manipulating the kids’ actions or the challenges of their environment to make things easier or only asking them to do what they already can, success is handed to players. The success is not earned.
When players are set up to succeed, they are not really being asked to compete at all. Although a player can have success initially, eventually without the development and learning, the success will end. The player may have assumed he was getting better due to the wins or positive reinforcement from the coach or parents, but all of a sudden he will find himself in a situation where he has no chance of being successful. Without the fundamental skills to play the game, there is no way he can compete. Not only will he not know how to compete, the player will also lack the tools to even give himself a chance.
Is there a crueler thing to do to a child? Make them believe they are heading down the right path, when actually, they are going the wrong way.
It is really a simple concept. The players all need, and should, develop a desire to win when they play. But, you know what, if they want to win, then they need to learn how to play and earn it. They need to compete the right way and try to finish first. That is how life works. There is no logic in wanting to win and not wanting to learn the skills needed to play. This is true in school, business, sports, and every aspect of life. You should want to do well and want to have success. Not for the sake of the success, but for the fact that is the standard you hold yourself too. And that is what kids need to learn. If you do not want to learn how to play soccer, you do not want to learn how to control the ball, dribble, pass, receive, defend, move off the ball, and everything else needed to play, then you really do not want to compete at all. You really do not have a strong enough desire to win because you are not willing to do what is necessary to win, not once, not just now, but for as long as you play.
Winners, true competitors, win because they work harder than their competition to get better. They want to win, so they know they need to get better. They work hard, get better, and win they win more than those who do not. As they win, the competition gets tougher so they still strive to continue to improve.
When players do lose, there are plenty of lessons from the loss that need to be addressed and learned by the players and the coach. A “development-first” focus is not saying, “Hey, we lost. No big deal.” There is no room for learning or development in that statement. Developing players is using those times to look at the games and identify where the team and each player need to improve to get better. Again, development is key. The players are asked to reflect on what went well and what did not, and how can they replicate the things that worked and improve on the things that are currently out of their reach.
On the other side, a loss does not mean that the game was a waste, and that is where the line is drawn. Those who just want to win, and do not care about development, fail to find the important takeaways from those games. The only thing focused on is the fact that the player or team lost. If a team loses but the players are executing and utilizing skills learned throughout the week with the coach, then there is success there that needs to be recognized and acknowledged.
When any player or team tries new skills or tactical approaches on the field, it does not work perfectly the first time or the first full season attempting what is being learned. While trying to learn those skills, the players and team expose themselves to a higher possibility they will lose some games. Not until they have mastered those skills will the players have the best shot at winning playing that way and using the new skills.
This is where the lessons are found when a player loses. Those lessons are what they take back with them to training to work on to improve before next game. If the approach is “who cares that we lost,” then it does not give the kids goals to work towards at the next training session. On the flip side, if the kids are just scolded for losing and their attempt to use those skills are not recognized and praised, then what is their motivation to continue to get better at those skills or try them again?
In training and in games, competition is key for player development. The drive to win and have success on the field is connected to the drive to improve and get better at the game. A player cannot only focus on one or the other as it would not allow the player to develop. If a player just wants to win, but is not willing to train to improve, there will be no development and winning is not possible. If a player just wants to get better but does not want to win, then they have no reason to use what they are learning. If you cannot use what you are learning, why learn it? And frankly, if you do not want to win, there is no reason to play.
Competition is healthy when it is presented in the correct way to the players. We cannot ask kids to compete without giving them the tools to play the game, and we cannot ask them to develop the tools if we do not want them to compete. It is when winning is the only goal and the development is sacrificed in order to take short cuts to help players “cheat” themselves into a win and out of getting better that competition is grossly warped by adult influence.
The purest form of competition can be found in the streets and parks when kids play pick up on their own. With no adults or added external pressure, the kids will still compete because they want to win. Because they want to win, they will take risks, take charge, and assert themselves into the game. This is part of why “free play” is an important part of player development. Free play creates some of the most competitive environments kids will find themselves playing.
When someone mentions favoring a player development focus over a focus on winning, it does not mean that winning is not important. It usually means that the goal is to develop players which requires learning how to compete and win games, but there is no room for taking shortcuts to win a game if you want to create an environment to develop players. As with a developmental approach, it is understood there are no shortcuts to developing players but plenty of shortcuts to win games.
Tony Earp directs SuperKick/TeamZone Columbus’ Soccer Skills programs. Tony has a Masters in Education from The Ohio State University. Tony was a standout player both academically and athletically at The Ohio State University, earning multiple honors both on the field and in the classroom. He can be reached at tearp@