‘If we’re not getting results, the kids will lose interest and drop out’

There is a persistent idea that if a child’s team is not winning matches, they will lose motivation and drop out. I’ve heard it from both parents and coaches, who use it to justify deeply unethical and unhelpful behaviour. Parents take their child from a team that is losing and move them to one that is winning. Coaches put their weakest player in goal or at left back where their lack of ability is less exposed, or even just leave them on the bench. I would like to challenge this idea.

Where does this idea come from?

Parents and coaches claim to have the child’s best interests at heart, and claim that they are preserving the child’s motivation. But children aren’t born winners. They learn the value of winning from us, parents and coaches. So often a child will finish a match and the parent or coach will immediately ask them ‘Did you win?’ which indicates to them that winning is the primary determinant of success.

‘They’ll lose interest’

There’s a great 10 minute documentary called L’petit Equipe about a French youth team that hasn’t won a single match in their history. In fact they haven’t scored a single goal. If any group of kids was going to be demotivated by their results, it’s them. But they don’t define their self worth by their team’s results. Which I think we can all agree is a healthy view of not just youth football, but of life as a whole.

‘They don’t lack spirit… they don’t go home mad or angry’

The parents aren’t fussed about the result, they’re joking around and taking it lightly. They celebrate the good attempts and it’s reasonable to assume they’re not berating the children for mistakes. The kids don’t stress about ‘getting the three points‘, they get their enjoyment from being part of a team, kicking a ball around, making saves, seeing their friends.

We don’t care if we don’t score, we have fun. We’ll score when we grow old!

I’ve been lucky enough to work at a 5 a side facility for the last few years, where we host youth leagues attracting thousands of players. I’ve seen many teams like Margatánia there, who lose by double digits in a 20 or 30 minute match. Most of them catch up to the competition within a year, just by playing against better teams, which is one of the best ways to learn. You learn more from defeat than victory, after all.

Some players do however leave what they perceive to be a ‘sinking ship’. Some teams fold as a result. In my experience this is because of a flawed idea that ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’, an idea that comes from professional sports, which has absolutely no transfer to youth sports.

How to avoid this?

This idea comes from our language and manner as parents and coaches. Focusing on the end result negates everything that comes before it, and it also sets a binary success or failure outcome which is totally inappropriate. The Hersham u9s Division 3 title is not an objective measure of quality. A loss doesn’t make you a bad team, or a bad player, and a win doesn’t make you good.

Personally, I’ve worked with one team who were placed in too high a league when they were formed. We didn’t win a game in our first term together. Maintaining confidence was therefore the primary objective of every match and session we had together, and I had to work on my language and manner to address this.

I would praise the small things they did well, and I genuinely meant that praise. It wasn’t a silver lining. We had a player who megged the same opponent three times in one possession! I don’t think I criticised any player at all that entire season. I didn’t give them a free ride either, I told them when they were outworked, I told them when they were outfought, but I told them they could outwork and outfight the next team, because those skills are attainable by anybody.

As with all coaching stories, they ended up winning their first match at the end of the season. The celebrations were greater than any I’ve ever seen. I told them after that whatever they did in future, they could always remember the season they came back after twenty odd straight losses, because it showed their resilience.

I think one of the greatest role models for any leadership role is Jean-Luc Picard, who sums it up fantastically when he says:

It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.

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