More Ways to Win than Winning UglyWhy the ugly pursuit of the almighty “W” at the young ages is nothing more than a fool’s errand
by Ken Sweda | Tuesday, October 02, 2012
Our U-9 girls lost a game this past Saturday.
Why is this newsworthy?
It was our first loss in a season and a half. I know, still not very newsworthy – plenty of youth teams have winning streaks.
Plenty, maybe even a majority, of youth teams prioritize winning to such a degree that if they don’t go on streaks like this, in the midst of winning leagues and tournaments, their reputation will suffer and their parents will start to question whether the club is “doing the right things” for their child.
I’ve touched on the idea before, this notion that the largely under-educated soccer parent is at the heart of the misplaced goals of youth football in this region. The judge their coaches’ and child’s success on the only thing they understand about the game – the final score. And it’s still very true, even today.
While there is a significant proportion of youth coaches who want to win matches for their own egos, there is probably a larger group who would prefer to train and develop their players the “right way.” But they realize they don’t have the time or the leeway from the parents to extend their horizon and focus on these pursuits, lest it delay the winning by even a season or two.
This project to educate parents, and change the metrics for “success,” is one we have undertaken with our U-9 girl’s team. The team formed from our neighborhood as part of the local Park District program several years ago, before my daughter joined and before I was asked to help.
They were a wonderful and spirited bunch who did quite well and quickly advanced to the point where we decided to take them to the next available step – a Premier or Advanced Rec level that is offered in our town – a great idea to bridge the gap between true rec and travel club.
By the time we made this decision, I and our other coaches were well into our conversion to the progressive, player-based coaching ethos that is finally starting to gain a little (but only a little) traction here.
Indeed, in our first season of Premier Rec in the Fall of 2011, we spent so much time on ball mastery and fundamentals that we left no time for talk of positional responsibilities (moving from 5v5 to 7v7), and literally mere minutes on set pieces. It was all about developing a relationship with the ball, and with the game.
In our first game that season, we got shelled. Badly. We were outplayed physically, and we crumbled mentally and emotionally.
The next game wasn’t much better.
Mind you, our opponents weren’t really playing much soccer, but they sure were winning. Winning ugly, you might say, in the American youth soccer tradition.
But then an interesting thing happened.
Around the midpoint of that season, things started to come together for us, and by the end of that fall season, we were seeing incredible growth from all our girls individually and collectively, as each player was better able to handle the ball and their “moments” within each game.
The entire unit began to catch fire and at the end of the season we were seeing the seeds we had been planting beginning to germinate. We played much better and even won a couple games. We ended that year excited to see what the spring 2012 season would bring.
So what happened this past spring?
We put together an undefeated season and earned a league “championship.” We’re not big on championships at the early ages, and it certainly wasn’t our focus, but I have to admit it was nice to win, and win the way we did – with clever, skilled play and possession soccer, executed by the players, not shouted in from the sideline like nearly all of our opponents.
Our commitment to this type of training is nothing more than our commitment to these amazing young ladies. We want them to understand the real game. We don’t present superficial ideas and rely on a couple “fast kids” and one or two “big legs.” We don’t yell “boot it,” “big kick” or “kick it out”. In fact, no one on our team has ever intentionally kicked a ball out of bounds anywhere on the field, not even in our own third.
The girls are bright enough for much more detailed and demanding ideas and responsibilities to be given to them. It’s all about how you do so; it must be just at the edge or slightly beyond their current grasp (the idea of “reaching”), and it must be engaging. And, frankly, it must, on some level, be fun.
Our girls aren’t any more “special” than anyone else’s. But every player does have that special quality that all children have, and that needs to be fostered and valued. How they choose to use their tools is all about individuality, but it’s the common trait of “worthiness” that should drive a coach to produce the best experience for his players.
All young players are capable, and deserving, of this kind of development, not just our girls. The marginalizing of certain types of players, and favoring of others, in the pursuit of winning, is a nasty, ugly practice but is all too common. The entire process should be geared to producing a richness of experience and opportunity. The kids will amaze you, I promise.
When we began to introduce more conceptual Small Sided Games (SSG’s) at the beginning of the spring, there was resistance because it was an entirely new approach for them. The usual cry was “I don’t understand this. Why can’t we just scrimmage??!” Now, a mere 6 months later, the usual response is “Awww, is practice over already?? That was so awesome!”
In short, this approach works. And it wins. And if you believe in it, and you believe the game is about your players and not you, you can do amazing things that will last a lifetime.
So what happened last Saturday? What went wrong?
Nothing, really. And I don’t really consider us to have lost the game, at least not based on all the criteria that we value, anyway.
Both head coaches and our daughters missed the game, but based on reports from our assistant we had approximately 85% possession and created countless chances (and before you think 85% is overstated, let me assure you that I’ve seen it enough in person to know this is not a misrepresentation).
So why couldn’t we breach a team after displaying this kind of advantage? The opposing coach quite literally parked the (school) bus and didn’t really play much soccer.
Yes, parking the bus at U-9. Reason #47 the sport progresses so slowly in North America.
We admittedly were missing a couple “difference makers” in the game but that’s almost precisely the point—we are teaching ALL our girls to play with skill, confidence, creativity, awareness and composure, so even while playing short, our team played the same way as always and only succumbed to the proverbial “bad bounce” with three minutes to play.
The unfortunate thing is that the opposing team’s parents probably won’t think deeply enough about how the game was played to see that their children’s experience wasn’t even close to what it could be. They’ll likely judge it solely on the final score, and how many times they kept us from knocking one in. They’ll equate their children’s enjoyment and ability with the result on the day, or on the season. And they’ll be missing the big picture when they do.
But our girls are developing a deeper level of enthusiasm for, and execution of, the game because they are learning the tools to create their own moments on the field.
And that, to me, is the real definition of winning. I’ll take that all day long. Sound a little braggadocious? Maybe. But I’m bragging about our players’ love for the game and their ability to play it on their own terms, not some meaningless trophy case. And as I said before, this approach also wins, and not as slowly as some might suggest.
If we, the progressive coaches, don’t stand up for this approach and advocate for it, the conversation will always be dominated by the people who have held this region back from loftier, and yet more intrinsic, goals.
I know which side I’m on, and it’s growing by the day.