Part of what makes sport such a joy for millions worldwide is it's inherently competitive nature. Take the concept of pitting one team (or individual) against another away from sport and you'd lose a significant part of the fabric of that sport.
Whilst that is pretty conventional wisdom for adults teams, how does it compare with youth sport? Are we actually hindering the progress of young players by striving for victory too hard too soon? If so, what are the alternatives?
I spoke to two coaches from across the sporting spectrum to find out: Saul Isaksson-Hurst, a technical skills coach at Chelsea FC and Nathan Smith, a Coaching Co-ordinator with particular knowledge of youth rugby coaching, to find out.
Initial thoughts on whether we are too heavily concerned with winning at youth level.
Saul Isaksson-Hurst: I think this is definitely an issue. People often associate the success of a development program with the results on a Saturday or Sunday. This is often a false economy as coaches set their teams up to win in with the detriment to long term development.
NS: The RFU have pioneered in stressing the importance to mini or junior players, supporters and coaches that the emphasis should not be focused on the end results but all the processes in-between.
The main challenge to this is the re-education of parents and coaches to avoid old school scenarios of pushy parents and harassed referees – fuelled by a winning at all costs mentality.
Me: It's certainly a more complicated process when it comes to youth sports than that of adults. As we'll touch on in a second, the enjoyment of playing should be paramount in youth spor, and that can be compromised in a number of ways if coaches and parents push to hard to emphasise victory.
Might an overbearing emphasis on winning impacts the enjoyment level of sport for kids?
S I-H: This is the crux of the matter. On too many occasions I've seen over zealous and emotional coaches and parents ruining the experience for their children. It often becomes more about their ego than the child. The problem isn’t with competition in youth football, its with some of the adults who run and are involved with this.
Me: Firstly, we need to define exactly what it is that fuels enjoyment for kids in sport. Thankfully, evidence is at hand. A 2014 study into why kids quit sport (detailed in this blog) showed that winning matches or getting medals and trophies was not associated with 'fun'.
The study showed that without fun, kids lose interest and drop out rates increase.
Could it also have an impact on the progression of their skills? Does it leave later-developed youngsters at a disadvantage?
S I-H: The problem with late developers is an on going issue in this country. Even this season, I have seen a technically excellent under-8 released from the biggest cat 1 clubs in London for being ‘too small and not effecting the game’. We are making decisions on players because Academies are too impatient and want to win games at under-9 level.
In Europe things are different; the clever, intelligent players are revered. This is maybe why we don’t have so many of these types of players in the english team.
It's also important to stress that players need the opportunity to be able to go out and make mistakes, this is how we learn. Don’t punish the dribbler for trying skills and losing the ball, this young player could turn out to be the next Messi.
NS: Yes, this is why in New Zealand they have adopted a strategy where children are separated by weight and not age. Taking away the big kid running through everyone creates an environment where skill has to be acquired to better the opponent.
I would be a strong advocate of this system. It is sad when players do not possess basic fundamental passing and hand catching skills. This due to the fact they have not needed them, as they have been encouraged to just run through the opposition, a skill that will become less effective when weight evens itself out overtime.
Me: There's a clear conflict of interest here. We all know children develop at different rates, helping more physical children to dominate games of football or rugby with their size. If winning is so vital, coaches will prioritise early developers, using their physicality to win games and abandoning skill in the process.
As is pointed out from some of our experts, in the long term this becomes counter productive. When everyone catches up, those physical players can no longer fall back on their superior size and it may be too late to develop the skills they need to succeed (in a time when winning is more important).
Plus, for those late developers, you're consigned to a role on the fringes of the team. And, going back to the study outlined above, another major reason kids drop out of sport was not being involved – a problem fuelled by the need to win at all costs.
As an alternative, should we discount the score and abandon league tables in youth games?
S I-H: I don’t think this is necessarily the answer either. In Academy football we now have this and what we have found is that we have gone too far the other way. By this I mean we’ve starved our young players of real competition. When we play abroad we notice the players from the continental academies have much better game management in tournaments because they are more accustomed to those environments.
NS: I think that a score should always be taken; it’s just what score? When working in player development we should encourage the scoring of points in different ways during a game. For instance, if the emphasis of the coaching session was to develop passing, then give additional points to each team for positive passes made in the game (Point System: 1, for a try, 2, for an attempted pass to a man in space & 3, for a successful pass to a man in space).
This would aid in the child’s skill development and also the understanding of why tries are scored. This point system can be modified for any facet of the game.
Coaches are encouraged to apply these points systems in skill development training - so why not as part of a league system against other teams?
Me: The consensus seems to be that discounting scores altogether is a bad idea, as it can teach valuable in-game lessons and help players experience different match scenarios.
Personally, I like Nathan's idea of expanding on scoring to emphasise good play. Encourage expression in your players by scoring additional points, and you can have the best of both competition and development.
Ultimately, is winning an intrinsic part of sport, and as such one we should encourage into players as early as possible?
S I-H: Competition is an important part of sport and a young players development. It's not only about learning to win, importantly its about learning to lose also and struggle against adversity. Massively important qualities we need in players. If we rob this from our young players we do them disservice and endanger their development.
NS: Winning at a senior level is important as coaches and players jobs, mortgages and credibility are on the line. However, player development is far more important than winning in mini, junior and academy rugby.
It is important when leaving junior or academy rugby that players are proficient with the fundamental skills of rugby and personal ownership. If you actually change what winning is and the points system you play with, then is winning not the same as it once was. This then providing an environment where winning a game is a positive outcome, as it is measured through skill and not basically through how many tries you score. Therefore, evoking a winning mentality and developing skill at the same time.
Me: As I mentioned in my intro, winning is a part of sport that you simply can't take away. What's clear however is that there is a balance. Doing everything to win is a motto that characterises the best players in all sports, but at junior level participants just don't consider it to be a priority.
The essence of what it means to win (and by contrast lose) needs to be maintained; but coaches and junior leagues officials could do more to redress the balance, emphasising skill and development more and ensuring kids aren't scared away from participating in sport altogether.
Now you've heard what our experts think, we want to know your thoughts. Are there ways we can maintain the importance of winning in sport that doesn't actively discourage youngsters from playing and damage development? Should it even be a concern?
Let us know in the comments below.