Saturday, May 16, 2009

Winning isn't everything (but is it something?)

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Last week I posted an entry on the definition of "winning" in youth sports. Specifically, winning was defined not according to the immediate objectives -- trophies, medals and such -- but as the achievement of one's objectives while developing the more important growth qualities that warrant a child's involvement in youth sports to begin with.

At face value, it seems that our children are under far more pressure to perform than I was as a kid, to say the least. Every season I encounter at least one parent who is grooming their ten-year-old to be the next Nolan Ryan. It is not uncommon to see seven- and eight-year-old children facing rigorous travel schedules on "select" sports teams, and even in "recreational" sports we find coaches whose primary goal is to win without regards to the means through which they're doing it.

I faced an ugly and unfounded accusation this year as a coach. As our team pressed on toward the Division Title, a parent on my team accused me of "caring only about the win." She told me I wasn't giving her son equal playing time, and that I was catering to the top 3 or 4 kids on the team (fortunately, I was able to show her my FairPlay™ statistics to demonstrate the degree to which I had created ample opportunities for the developing players to contribute).

In the course of my conversation with this parent, she reminded me that winning isn't everything, that sometimes kids learn more from defeat than victory, and she chided me toward more "balanced" game play."

We were fortunate enough to resolve the situation in a civil manner, primarily because I helped her see on an objective level how our contributions to her son's development had worked to his benefit. Of course, taking home a trophy tends to mend wounds, as well.

In spite of the Blue Jays' successful season, I found myself contemplating that conversation from time to time. If winning isn't everything, is it at least something to be considered in recreational youth sports?

When Winning Matters

Youth psychologists have myriad perspectives on the "right time" to introduce our young athletes to performance-based game play. While the more extreme among these perspectives suggest that score shouldn't even be kept until age eleven, even the children on a five-year-old developmental soccer or tee ball team tend toward a fundamental awareness of "the score" and a desire to come out ahead.

In spite of our best attempts as parents to curb kids' competitive edge, it stands to reason that many (if not most) children -- boys in particular -- are remarkably goal-oriented. While this typically does not play out with the same long-term focus many coaches would hope, it does mean that our players will often equate a "winning season" with a "more fun" season.

Throughout my own experience as a coach, I have found that the ideal age for the "win mentality" tends to be in the 9-12 year age range. With greater maturity comes a greater capacity for teamwork, self-discipline and longer-term focus. In these formative years of a young athlete's development, statistical victories can have substantially positive effects:
  • They can develop confidence at an age typically characterized by a great deal of uncertainty and self-doubt
  • Statistical victories prepare our children for the results-oriented environment they will face in their adulthood
  • Even the least contributor on a winning team can learn that they can help achieve success for the group, even if theirs wasn't a standout performance.

Ultimately, as coaches and parents we should not confuse "winning" with "winning at all costs." While there are advantages to prioritizing the statistical victory, we do our children a great disservice if we in any way compromise the more important attributes of character, integrity and fairness.

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