Choosing Our Words: Performance ≠ Score
Think about the last time you asked a young player about a match he/she recently played in. Chances are it went something like this: “Hey Sarah! How did your game go?” Sarah replies “Great! We won 4-2.” If that’s the case, hopefully there is a follow up response like “How did you do?” to which Sarah likely replies “Good. I scored one goal!” Does this sound familiar? If so, we need to take serious look at what just happened. What’s wrong with this situation? Firstly, the adult did not ask “What was the score?” or “Did you win your game?” yet the child’s response was only about the result and the score. Kudos to the adult for making the effort to ask specifically about the child’s performance (because it’s really about player development, not team development, and, psychologically speaking, kids are most concerned about their own personal experiences) but shame on the adult for allowing Sarah to get away with evaluating her performance by the score. This situation is not the child’s fault. Children have been taught to respond like this. As adults, we have either asked them outright about the score, whether or not they scored, and/or only focused on match results when it comes to evaluating team performance or success. And in the best case scenario, we have had conversations like the one above in which we did not ask about the score, but we allowed the child make it about scoring and did not correct her. What we say makes a huge difference As adults, we need to be very aware of what we say to children. They look up to us, and every word we choose can have an impact one way or another. Sometimes the comments or words we think are the most trivial or insignificant are the words that stand out to children the most. Children are constantly learning about the world and shaping their views and attitudes about it. They observe, listen, and explore. Kids are always listening in on adults and taking those words to heart. They are usually not wise enough to understand the context behind the words and take our statements very literally. Therefore, if we only talk about the score, children learn that only the score matters. What we don’t say makes a huge difference Not only do our words have a huge impact on kids, but our unspoken implications have a large effect. Even if we do not explicitly say something, if we center the focus of a conversation around a topic, children will believe that that topic is important. For instance, the opening conversation between the adult and Sarah: The adult did not explicitly speak about the score or say that it was important. However, the response to “how did your game go?” was only about the score, and the adult validated it as an acceptable answer. Without the focus of the conversation changing to something else, young Sarah learns – implicitly – that only the score matters. “How did you do?” ≠ “What was the score?” When we ask a child “How did you do?” or “How did they game go?” it is important that we do not imply that we are asking about the score. Winning is not the definition of success at the youth level. This does not mean that developing a winning mentality is bad; it means that winning is not the most important outcome of a youth soccer experience. This is why we cannot allow the conversation to be only about scoring, assists, or the match result. By allowing this, we are teaching children – intentionally or not - that winning is the only (or most important) way to define success. This is a major disservice to the kids. The most important factor in determining success at the youth level is personal improvement. Are the players getting better technically and tactically? Are they trying new/better things? Have they been successful in executing a new skill or move in a match? Are they successfully executing or attempting the topics learned in practice? This being said, we must make sure that the performance-centered conversations we have with children are about just that – their performance. If we could do it over again, here are a few ways to improve the conversation with Sarah: Situation 1: Adult: “Hey Sarah! How did your game go?” Sarah: “Great! We won 4-2.” A: (smiles) “That’s nice. But how did it go?” S: (hesitates, silence) A: “Did you have fun and do your best?” S: “Yes!" A: “That’s great! Did you try anything new that you learned in practice?” Situation 2: Adult: “Hey Sarah! How did your game go?” Sarah: “Great! We won 4-2.” A: “That’s great. How did you do?” S: “Good. I scored one goal!” A: “Awesome! What else did you do well?” Situation 3: Adult: “Hey Sarah! I heard you played earlier today. Was it super fun?” Sarah: “Yeah!” A: “Awesome! How did you do?” S: “Great! We won 4-2.” A: “That’s good. But how did you do? Did you try any new moves?” From these situations, Sarah begins to learn that scoring and match results are not the only important factor in determining success. And as she continues to have these types of conversations, she will eventually begin to respond first about her and/or her team’s performance, not just the score. And ultimately, she will learn the importance of focusing on improving her skills and knowledge, since her hard work and attempts at trying new things are continuously praised.