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Is Winning Important to Athlete Development?

WinningI like to win.  Even at the smallest of competition, I get a little bounce in my step when I come out victorious.  Winning has been a motivating force in my life for as long as I can remember.  I also have enough experience to understand that winning is a byproduct of the process.  I understand that there is a process to development and that a strong work ethic and a desire to be successful is a major part of becoming a better athlete and a better coach.  I spend a lot of time trying to learn new ways to train my players, and if I do my part, and they do their part, winning will take care of itself.  This philosophy was not always present in my coaching, and I am sure that as a player, the score was the determining factor.  I only wish someone had shared this with me when I was a young player because I may have approached the game much differently.

Winning and Development

So where does winning fit into the development process?  I struggle with the role of winning in sports because I understand that it can’t be the end all be all of coaching.  I also understand that it is important.  I have written before about how failure can put you closer to success.  I understand that failure is an important part of the development process.  When we talk about enjoyment of the sport, winning helps. Nobody likes to pour their heart out and lose every night.

The Winning Dilemma – Two Stories

I coach a 14U lacrosse team, and the main objective of the program is player development. I am asked to make sure I play everyone, and the level ranges from high level future college players to players who have picked up the sport for the first time. I know that if I play certain players we can win. However, I work hard to play everyone. The struggle is that I have to look at players who are competitive and strong  and tell them that playing everyone is more important than winning.  They have a difficult time understanding this point. they know that if I put them in, we will win the game. Is this fair to those players?  On the flip side, I see the weaker players pulling away and asking not to go in to the game because they are afraid that they will be the cause of a loss.  This does not help in their development.  The easy answer is to split teams and schedule appropriate competition that aids in the development of both groups, but this is not an option for many reasons.

My daughter is in her first year of travel soccer, and her team had not won a game through the first 2 months.  This is her first experience in competitive games, and although I understand that the main goal is for her to develop her skills and learn to operate within a team dynamic, I do want her to experience the joy of winning a game. I would tell myself that when she does finally win a game, it will be much more satisfying. My concern was that she would lose interest before that time comes. I don’t want her to lose any competitive spirit she has developed by accepting that today will be another loss. If she experiences the thrill of winning, does that only fuel her desire to do it again?  Now that she has finally won a game, I see her wanting to do it again.  She comes off the field with a little bit of disappointment when her team does not win.  She now works a little harder in practice and competes harder in games.  She battles more.  I wonder if this is a result of her natural progression in the sport, or is this progression sparked by a desire to best her opponent?

Is Winning Important?

So I ask again, is winning important? Young athletes need to experience success to stay engaged. The beginning stages of the LTAD is FUNdamentals. Is it fun to lose? Can you convince a 9 or 10-year-old that it is a long process and winning at 10 is not as important as developing into a strong 18-year-old player?  Fun is in the present, and although I agree that players must face struggle to improve, there are not many 9 year olds who chose struggle over the easy path.

Bob Mancini, USA Hockey American Development Model Regional Manager, summed it up best in a video for Liberty Mutual Insurance Play Positive Program on addressing playing time in sports.

No coach should try to win at the expense of the self-esteem of any child.  Winning is not that important.  Competition is truly what’s important.

While I do agree wholeheartedly with this statement, I do want to ask, where does winning fit into the self-esteem of a team, and as a result, the individual players?  Is winning a necessary part of the development process?  At what age does this change?  Mancini pointed out that some may argue that winning is not important until the highest level of the sport. So how do we promote an environment where self-esteem can be fostered by creating opportunities for success but not focusing on winning?  This is a delicate balance in coaching sport that is often fumbled by even the most experienced coaches.  I think Mancini articulated exactly the essence of where winning fits into development.

At the younger age we can certainly want to have an atmosphere of competition and make winning the byproduct of development rather than the focus of the team.

All too often, parents impart their perceptions and feelings on their children.  When we talk about the importance of winning in terms of self-esteem, are we talking about players or parents?  Parents often equate winning with development.  As coaches, we must see through this, and our job is to find the correct perspective in regards to the importance of winning while promoting competition and development.

Where are We Now?

A difficult question to answer, especially in the heat of competition, is this.  Will “going for the win” at this moment help or hurt my team in the long run?  It is a question that is loaded with landmines.  I have made decisions in my career to shorten the bench because I thought winning that today was important for the team.  Sometimes I have been right.  There have been times where we needed the win to feel better about where we are, and it gave our team a spark.  There have also been times where going for the win has cost me the attention of certain players, and as a result, my influence in the locker room was weakened.  There have been times where winning became the beginning of the end.

I ask you coaches out there to give me your opinion on this.  I seem to have many more questions than answers on this topic, and I am not sure that I have clarified anything at this point for coaches or leaders.  I leave you with one more.  Where does winning fit into player and team development, and at what point (if any) does winning become a priority?

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About Coach Printz

Jamie Printz has been a full time teacher/coach for over 20 years. Although the majority of his time is dedicated to ice hockey, he also coaches lacrosse and soccer. Coach Printz has had the pleasure of watching over 200 of his athletes move on to play collegiate sports. He works as a skills coach for local youth organizations, works in coaching education and player development at the state level, and is a parent of two young daughters who are beginning their journeys in the world of youth sport.
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