We Win! You Lose! We’re Awesome! You Suck!
Law 10.2 — Winning the Game. The team scoring the greater number of goals is the winner. — Laws of the Game, FIFA
And there you have it in black and white. The name of the game. It’s so clear and concise. Neat and tidy. There’s no room for misinterpretation. If my team scores more goals than your team then my team wins. Your team loses. Honestly though, what exactly does it mean if we win and you lose? And more importantly, what does it mean for the development of youth players?
Since our appetite for competition isn’t going away any time soon, competitive sporting opportunities abound. And the overall purpose for playing any competitive game, as defined at least in laws of soccer, remains the same — win. Generalisations about our cultural desire to win aside, we know there are many reasons to participate in a competitive sport such as improving skill, getting or staying healthy and socialising. At the same time, we’d be royally kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge how important winning was to most of us or at least how often it’s thrust in our face as important.
The objectivity of the definition of winning creates a zero sum game. My team has succeeded at the expense of yours. This is what competition does to us. Competition turns us against each other. Competition tells us that I can only succeed by first making you lose. But has my team really succeeded and how in heaven’s name is this belief at all developmental — you have to lose in order that I can succeed? And develop?
“It is possible to minimize the importance of winning and losing, but to do so requires one to swim against the current, to ignore what is demanded by the structure of the activity. It is possible to remain on friendly terms with competitors, but the fact that their interests are inversely related to one’s own predisposes each side to view the other with hostility.”
— Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition
So with that quote out there, how do we make sure that fun and development are the focal points of youth sport? After all, it is very difficult to concentrate on both product (i.e., winning the game) and process (i.e., playing the game well). The benefit of using outcome is its certainty. And out of that certainty comes its biggest weakness — rigidity. We won, you lost. We’re better, you’re worse. If my team scores more than your team, we win and you lose — even if your team played better than our team.
While it is much harder to define, I believe it is the subjectivity of ‘playing better than’ that is needed to round out an ideal description of winning at any level. On it’s own, the subjectivity is too vague. Too thin. In combination with something concrete, like the score, it provides a tangible framework for understanding a player’s development and progress in the game.
While there are far more than four outcomes possible, this give you a basic idea that there are many more development-related options to talk about then who won and who lost. Too bad we ruin that tangibility by most often focusing on the score alone. Yes, we take a very literal approach towards winning and losing. Any development-focused coach worth their salt instinctively understands the things I’ve talked about here. That there are so few of us lamenting this fact just goes to show the allure of competition and the power of winning.
With respect to Eliot River and winning versus development, what happens now? I can tell you the technical direction to coaches is not an either or. It is not one versus the other. The goal is to try to both strive to win and to develop simultaneously. However, if there is a conflict that does not allow the two to happen together, then development must come first.
That means you should not see your child playing a whole lot less than other players on the team. You should not see them stuck in only one position when they would like to try others. You should not hear from the coaches a lot of coaching that encourages players to simply “Get the ball out” or to “Stop playing with the ball and just get it up”. Those types of admonitions tell players that the product is far more important than the process.
Read The Competition Rant, a blog post from July 31, 2020
And if you as a spectating parent feel the urge to tell your child to “get it out of there” then ask yourself if you are more concerned about your child not making a mistake that costs their team a goal and the potential of a victory or more invested in them learning to play the game properly, regardless of their win-loss record.