It should be the most obvious thing in the world but it’s not. Not for everyone. Youth sports should be about kids having fun and making friends. It should be about sparking their interest in the sport that they’re participating in. It should be about long-term gains instead of short-term success. So why are we still so desperate to win?
Winning is a crucial element at elite level and so it should be. For kids though it shouldn’t be about winning, but I still hear and see things that make me a bit worried. There seems to be coaches and parents who are, consciously or not, too fixed on winning. Some youth coaches tend to field their strongest players to increase their chances of winning, meaning that the smaller kids get neglected. We’re too obsessed with scoring more goals than the opposition that we only play the children that are physically more evolved. No player should be picked ahead of someone else just because of their size.
Clubs are today investing almost as much time talking to parents as they do coaching their children. The need to educate parents, and balance their expectations, is maybe more relevant today than ever before. Some parents tend to be over-ambitious and unrealistic. They shout on the sidelines, they’re opinionated, and they try to influence the clubs and the coaches for the benefit of their own child. It doesn’t really matter how good the coach is if a kid’s parents aren’t aware of how their own behaviour negatively affect their kids. You have a problem if a parent’s priority is only to win and gain favours for their own kid.
There are a few countries who has removed the league tables up to a certain age and I personally like that. The kids, and the coaches and parents, will naturally keep track of the score in a single game but a team’s position in the league is not there to influence a coach’s decisions. A coach might be inclined to play his strongest players if his team has a chance of going top of the table. Without a table to look at he or she might think otherwise.
We must remember that winning doesn’t tell the whole story. Winning doesn’t necessarily mean that you as a coach are doing things right. It might actually mean that you need to re-evaluate yourself. Are you giving everyone on your team equal playing time? Are you encouraging your players to play the ball out from the back despite the risks? Or are you just kicking it long to your big striker because he’s your best player? Without a table to look at a coach might be more willing to let the players take more risks, which is always a good thing. The players should feel like they’re encouraged to try things instead of being afraid of losing or making mistakes.
I don’t believe that focusing less on winning in the U-11’s or U-12’s means that we’ll all of a sudden see a generation of footballers who won’t value winning. They’ll have plenty of time to develop their winning mentality during a long life in football. We need to stop being so eager to win when we’re dealing with kids. Our priorities need to change so that we can give our youth the best possible environment to be in. An environment where kids can be kids.
We should focus on trying to spark the children’s intrinsic motivation for a long-term involvement in sports. Focus on creating a session which is fun and interesting. Focus on honing their technical skills and their game understanding. Focus on building self-aware young people who want to help and support their teammates instead of trying to win at all cost.
It’s not about removing every obstacle for our kids and shielding them from life’s harsh realities but more about building a more sustainable and healthy sporting environment. We need to stop glorifying winners at youth level and create an environment where every child gets the time and support it needs to grow. I believe that they are better off away from the expectations and added pressure from over-enthusiastic coaches and parents whose main motivation is winning. No matter how small or big, talented or not, a child is, it deserves to develop in its own pace in a society which is less obsessed with which team that won.