Child: It’s not fair!
Adult: Life isn’t fair.
Nearly every child on Earth will have had this exchange at some point. Children and adults have very different views of fairness. A child’s perception of the world stems to a large degree from children’s books, TV, and other media, where the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose, thanks to an innate sense of justice in the universe. As they grow, they learn that this isn’t the case, and often their first opportunity to experience an unfair world occurs at sports.
They may be playing a match against a far superior team, or the opposing team may have an extra player. The referee may miss a foul on them, or the opponent may get away with cheating. They may be put in a role they don’t want to play, such as goalkeeper or defense, or take issue with another player always getting to play the more commonly desired roles such as striker.
There are other disparities that provoke a less immediate response, as the player may find that despite working hard and doing everything they’ve been instructed to, they still end up losing. This can shake their faith in the instruction they’ve received so far, and lead them to believe there’s no reason to persist further.
Often when players perceive a situation as being unfair, they lose motivation. Why try if you’re at a perceived disadvantage? Why persist if there’s little to no chance of winning? These questions go unanswered, and result in a loss of motivation, and a sulk. This is a lost learning opportunity, one that could potentially be used to teach valuable life lessons.
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life” Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Teaching children that giving up is an option sets them up for failure later in life. It’s not enough to shout “don’t give up, keep on going!” from the sidelines, players need a reason to do so. They need to understand that they have two choices, to sulk and make excuses about outside factors affecting the result, or persist in the face of adversity. Only one of these choices has any chance of success.
Coping skills can only take a young player so far, so the environment should also be appropriate for children coming to terms with disparities. Some of which can be avoided, for example by giving players equal time on the pitch, and equal time in different roles. Children tend to have an egalitarian perspective (1), and as such are very receptive to taking turns in roles, even when this costs the teams in terms of results.
Results are not a healthy indicator of success at youth level. The opposition may be at a vastly different stage of development, so a 10 – 0 drubbing isn’t necessarily a good or poor result. Keeping your players focused on fun avoids overly results-based behaviours.
This can be achieved by having multiple five minute matches instead of one long match at the end of training, so players don’t focus too much on the scoreline. Also by setting match constraints, for example where players can get a bonus goal for perfrming a skill that makes the coach or watching parents say “wow!”.
You can set your players targets that have no bearing on the score, so they can have measurable success without fixating on the result. These are controllable factors that take the player’s focus off those they can’t control, such as the referee or the relative quality of the teams. It redirects them from thinking they can’t do x, to thinking they can do y.
Sports have the potential to enrich an individual’s life to an enormous extent, but that isn’t an automatic process. It occurs when people work together, when odds are overcome, and when confidence is built. The right mindset is a necessary part of achieving this, and as coaches we can help give players that mindset.