Hey Mom, Dad, It’s OK To Lose!

I’m getting very close to my 10 year anniversary of coaching youth soccer, and I guess I’m reaching that stage where I look back and think ‘Oh my God what have I done!’ when it comes to those early years. Blessed with children born 8 years apart, I hope I’ve learned from my mistakes coaching my eldest so I can do a better job coaching my youngest as well as all the other kids I coach. But one thing that has always had me puzzled is the inability to tolerate losing at a young age. EVERY coach wants to win. But the problem is when the desire to win sacrifices a player’s development, or worse, causes them to quit. Sure winning feels good, but it’s OK to lose! Really!

I came across a fantastic column from Brad Hallier, a sports reporter for the Hutchinson News in Kansas, that highlights the frustration of coaches who do ‘get it’…

For the past 10 months, I’ve had the privilege of helping coach a local under-8 girls soccer team, the Club Azzurri Attack. It’s the first time in 12 years I’ve coached something beyond YMCA sports. And it was one of the most rewarding, yet frustrating, experiences ever.

Rewarding because there’s nothing like seeing kids do the things you teach them in practice. Frustrating because to some people, the games were like an Under-8 World Cup.

“Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

I’ve seen coaches and fans berate young referees who aren’t old enough to drive. They scream and yell as if a 15-year-old referee should never make a mistake.

Last weekend, I saw a coach hammer away at a referee during an under-8 boys soccer game. The young referee soon kicked out the coach, drawing applause from several bystanders.

You get kicked out of any sporting event involving 8-year olds, you should be barred for life from coaching youth sports.

Amen! But the problem extends way past the coaches and to the parents. As a society we are constantly bombarded with professional and collegiate sports where the only success is winning. Even the concept of ‘a rebuilding year’ seems quaint now with coaches sometimes shown the door after less than a year. But for athletes at that level, their ‘technical development’ if pretty much done. Yet for kids, their development is always taking place. Most of us as parents don’t grasp that.

Youth soccer is about developing soccer skills and having fun. That’s it. We play matches so players can refine those skills and learn to use them under pressure. Winning and losing is a natural part of any competitive sport and I will never advocate doing away with ‘results’ at all ages in youth soccer. It takes away more than it adds. But the thing we all have to remember as soccer parents is IT IS OK TO LOSE! Your child is NOT a failure because their team went 0-8. Your coach is not a failure because you went 0-8. The fact that you went 0-8 means nothing.

Instead, you need to focus on the one thing that DOES matter – did your child develop as a player? If not – then you likely do have a coaching issue or a child who really doesn’t want to play soccer. But if they did, the wins will come. They may not come until U15-U18/High School. But they will come. The problem is many parents do not have the familiarity with soccer to really see that development taking place. So looking back at ANY season, you should ask yourself these questions when trying to judge if a season was a success:

  • Did your child have fun? Stop right there – I know you want to say ‘losing is never fun!’ Who had more trouble with the losses? You or your child? Kids are VERY perceptive and if they see you upset over a loss, then they get upset and feel like they failed you. But in the right environment, they may be disappointed at losing, but within an hour or two – will they even remember the score vs remembering the cool things that happened during the match?
  • Is your child more comfortable with the ball at their feet than they were initially? Do they seem more confident with the ball?
  • When faced with an opponent, do they always pass the ball away (the safe thing), or do they sometimes go in 1v1 and try to beat that defender (the better thing for development). Did their coach encourage this?
  • Are they trying to use the skills and tricks they learn in practice during a match, or do those skills seem to disappear? Is their coach encouraging they take risks or chastising them for not ‘passing the ball’, thus preventing them from building confidence in their skills.
  • After each game, did your coach highlight both the encouraging aspects as well as things the team needed to work on, or was it just about the loss?

Every coach loses perspective from time to time. I certainly have. But overall as coaches, we have to do a better job of educating our parents about WHY a loss may be better than a win. Youth soccer is a long term thing – development pays off in years, not months. I know. My 96 girls team went 1-31 one year when they played at a higher level, where they belonged, but lacked the confidence in themselves to win. It was NOT easy, but those girls developed a lot. And when they dropped back down a level it became clear, even to them, that they had progressed beyond the other teams. Would some more wins have felt better had they not moved up? Sure. But I had a great group of parents who ‘got it’, stuck with the team, and we enjoyed much success at U13 and U14 despite the losses earlier because the stronger competition helped the girls develop.

Everyone wants to be on a winning team. The sad part is how many parents will ‘team shop’ their child – even in Rec – and end up hurting their development. I’ve seen insanely talented kids beat the daylights out of everyone else by 5-10 goals, who end up being mediocre when they get older because that ‘uber team’ won due to speed and agility and running straight at the goal or passing 1-2 times to shoot. Individual foot skill was sacrificed for the wins. The focus on the winning hurt their development and severely limited their advancement in soccer. Were those wins at U8 or U10 worth it? I’ve seen players yanked out of academy programs because their teams lost too much and returned to Rec because ‘they’ll win more’. How well do you think that will work out?

It’s OK to lose if your child is developing as a player, and if more of our parents and coaches don’t figure that out, they’re going to lose a lot more than they realize. It’s our job as coaches to help them understand that.

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  1. I would only add that sticking to the development over winning philosophy can be a challenge if you’re not TRULY committed to it. In particular at younger ages (U10 and below at least), when other teams are clearly playing to win and you know your team could do the same it can be tempting to forget that games are really only opportunities to let the kids try out the skills they’re learning in practices. If you don’t communicate clearly to the kids and have the parents on-board with your philosophy the pressure can mount. I’ve coached slightly older teams that have had losing seasons and then had other coaches ask me why our players make up half of the regional team – fortunately the coaches selecting those elite teams looked at the qualities of the players, not the records of their teams. Coaching for development will always pay off in the long run. And if you believe winning is important then is it better to win at 8, or later on when the rewards can be truly tangible.

  2. I agree in principle that development is more important than winning but as usual it is all generalities and anecdotes. What exactly is development? And “developing” would eventually lead to wins, right?

    I have seen coaches who were big “development before winning” yelling and screaming at refs and their kids every weekend, and coaches who very much prioritized winning acting like perfect positive gentlemen. And if I had a nickel for every time a coach came off the field deflecting a loss saying “they were just playing to win while we are developing” when the other team was developing just fine… well I would be rich. Or at least afford a snack from the consessions stand.

    Plus, there are plenty of gray areas. Is teaching basic shape to a U8 team instead of letting them run around in a little horde sacrificing development for winning? U6? Telling forwards to stay up the field and wide instead of always trying to get behind the ball? Having your defenders play a deep line? Ask 3 different “develop before winning” coaches those questions and you would get 5 different answers.

  3. A couple thoughts. First – it is absolutely hard to stick to a development focused philosophy. If your parents aren’t onboard (and you have to get them there) it’ll never happen as the parent bail for teams ‘that win’

    But Kevin you raise important points. I think the key to take away is that the goal should be winning *because* of development and not winning at the expense of development. Coaches can say anything, but the proof is in what they *do* during practices and especially in the majority of matches. Almost every single coach has coached to win in a match. That’s not he end of the world (is it a tournament final? Knock out round to survive to the next match). But what did that coach do during the bulk of the other matches? How did they handle their players, substitution, etc.

    And don’t confuse a development oriented coaching philosophy with how a coach behaves on the sideline. Those are two completely different things. While in many case they may seem correlated, they usually aren’t.

  4. As always actions speak louder than words, and that certainly goes for “development” in soccer. I like the idea of describing it as winning *because* of development. The goal in youth soccer has to be coaching to enable players to become the best they can be in the long run, and in the long run that should lead to better results too.

  5. Its an ideal I have tried to do. I have had many winning seasons and had one bad season, mostly due to parents not making the needed commitments in time and money to stay in the higher level “bracket.” Result is the kids were not up to speed with the other teams in the bracket who pay for more paid pro trainer and also do more practices per week. So when it comes to the win and lose vs development – I can say for sure – No parents are on board with this at all, at all – not a one anywhere, period. Even the ones that say they are are in the end full of it. Often your org will sell you out to these fickle parents too, then you will not be able to coach at all. So if you think you can contribute as a coach, you need to try and stay in the program as a coach. May have to modify your approach and try to stay at 50% or above.