Over the years, there has been a huge emphasis placed on winning in youth soccer. Still today, many adults focus on winning and do all they can to help their children’s youth soccer teams win. In case you haven’t heard the memo, this is not a good approach. In response to this, many people have been battling the “win at all costs” mentality. Those leading the way likely understand the right approach. However, many people following them misunderstand the intent. They hear the downside of “win at all costs” and replace it with “winning doesn’t matter.” Winning does matter. Winning is an important part of a person’s development. Kids need to learn how to win and how to compete. Taking the approach of “winning doesn’t matter” is equally as harmful as “win at all costs.” The real approach should be: Winning matters, but it’s not worth the cost. Here’s the cost of winning: During a child’s development, they are going to make many mistakes. Those mistakes will inevitably lead to getting scored on and sometimes losing. If kids only use winning as a measure of success, they will recognize that trying new things often leads to mistakes, so they will not try anything new, and they will never get better. Additionally, freak things always happen in youth games. Weird bounces, odd deflections, and miraculous rainbow goals from distance. When we end up on the unfortunate side of these, we cannot let kids think they failed because they ended up losing. Lastly, if all we want to do is win, all we need is one or two kids who are physically ahead of everyone else to do everything – they’ll defend and score without anyone else’s help, and without anyone else’s opportunity to improve. Winning costs development, confidence, and engagement in the sport. Children need to learn to take control of what they can and use it to give themselves the best chance to improve and compete. They must try new concepts and retry them when they make mistakes. Success = getting better. That is why we cannot overemphasize winning. It is most important that everyone improves, and improvement will cost us the occasional scoreboard result.
At the ultimate level, winning does define success. Professional managers get sacked for not achieving winning results (so do regular people who don’t succeed in their jobs). This is a big reason why winning matters at the youth level. We want kids to crave and fight to win at all moments. We want them to never give up, no matter what the score or situation in a match. This is why we need to teach kids how to win and cultivate a winning mentality – without letting it define us. At the youngest levels, it is not necessary to keep score. The kids will be doing that on their own for us. Let them. But we keep the focus on their development. When a U8 team comes off the field exclaiming “We won 7-5!” We need to say something like “Great! How many moves did you do?” We then proceed to ask all the kids how many moves they tried, regardless of whether or not their team won, and we praise them all for trying. We also praise them for successfully doing them, and we remind everyone to try again next time and try to successfully execute even more. During practice, we must always include some sort of “winning.” This does not mean keeping score in a game. This means trying to do as many scissors as possible in 30 seconds, then doing it again and beating your previous score. This develops competitiveness and a focus on competing and improving, and it allows every player to “win.” As they build confidence, competitive drive, and resilience, we can begin to incorporate more interpersonal competition. First, this means doing 1v1 activities in which players play several rounds. They must keep their own score over the course of all the rounds. How high can they get? Next comes keeping score in actual games. Blue team vs. red team. Who won? They must always keep their own team’s score and must always be able to tell us if we ask. We don’t need to include any sort of consequence like running or pushups for losing. If we’re doing it right, the mere fact of losing is punishment enough for our players. And the winners are satisfied by the glory of victory. Even in an actual winning/losing scenario, the score does not define success. We must point out the other successes from both sides – did we have good ideas, execute technique well, etc.? Over time, if we prioritize development and the pursuit of excellence, while also cultivating a desire and mentality to win (even though results are not most important), our players will begin to win regularly. Winning is an eventual byproduct of excellence and improvement. By continuing to raise their own personal levels – individually and collectively – our players’ abilities will be good enough to allow them to win regularly. What used to be attempts at trying new things becomes consistent execution on a high level, which results in winning.