Winning games (at all costs) and developing youth players are not mutually exclusive, but in practice it demands different things.
Often the instantaneous gratification of winning a match is seen as the sole marker of success and fun. Ask your child why he/she likes to play football. They might say they like to learn new skills, play with their friends, run around. Winning probably is not one of the main reasons.
Culture of Winning
However, the culture of winning can put too much pressure on kids and negatively impact their enjoyment for the game and their development as a player. This contributes to early withdrawing from sports.
Before the game
The pressure might start days before the game when people around the player start talking about the opponent. They talk about how strong they are, their previous winnings etc. At Total Soccer we focus on our own game and how we can play at our best. The focus is not on the opposition. Of course the coach thinks strategically about players’ positioning etc., but the focus is on how our players can play their best game. The coach might decide to challenge players by giving them a more difficult task or putting them in a different position than what they are used to (or where they prefer to play) so they can improve their development.
During the game
During the game, as we discussed in the article about Growth Mindset, players need to feel free and confident to try new skills and develop their on-field problem solving. The pressure placed on them by their loved ones might inhibit them of trying new things.
This holds true also for sideline coaching. If children are constantly told what to do, they loose the ability to work on their own problem solving skills. As a coach or a parent, it might be clear to you what the best next move is, but it’s important for the players to find this out by themselves. Compare it to a math test, I’m sure as a parent/teacher you could easily answer the questions but you understand that by doing that, the child won’t learn. It’s the same with football.
Sometimes during games the coach might have a laissez-faire approach, this means the coach will observe the game without actively coaching. It does not mean the coach does not care. He is observing if the players are using the guidelines given during training, who is taking the initiative and being creative, who is taking the leadership on the field and coaching his teammates, who is trying a newly learned skill.
Long term youth development
At a higher level, coaches are not always going to tell the player what to do. A team might have more chances of winning if a coach is constantly telling the players what to do, but players definitely learn more if they are given the chance to make their own decisions. If you think long-term, a player who develops his own problem-solving skills will be a better player in the future. However if the goal is the immediate win you might more appreciate a coach who is telling the player what to do. Another example is, kicking the ball out. It is a safe option but what does it teach the player? At this stage, the player might loose the ball if he tries to dribble but he/she is learning. If the player tries something and he looses the ball he needs to be encouraged to keep trying until he gets it right. Of course, in some cases, kicking the ball out is the best option, but it must be a strategic decision, not because the player is afraid of making a mistake.
It might be frustrating for a coach or a parent to see the player making the ‘wrong’ decision, but its not about you, its about the children. As a parent, try to have an eye for what your kid is trying to accomplish. If you watch the training try to see if your child is trying a skill which he learned, and compliment him for that. Development can be seen in the little things. Sometimes it coincides with winning a game, and that is the ultimate enjoyment. But a player can have much more fun during a fair tough game than an easy win. Success is not equivalent to winning.
After the game
The pressure might also continue after the game. Parents might want to talk about the loss after the game in the ride home, but this post-game assessment is not what players need. Try not the blame the referee or the players of the other team or your child’s teammate. Again, listen to your child and feel the room! It’s important to praise their effort. Ask if he had fun and if you feel they are not willing to talk about it, move on.
Games are learning opportunities, a moment to try out what they learned during the training. It is then when it clicks and they unlock their potential. A moment to enjoy with their team mates. It’s their moment. Games are opportunities to meet their friends and show each other what they have learned, what they can do, how they are improving. It’s fun to be creative and see their friends (even from the opposite team) trying the skill they were practicing the day before. As a parent, sit back, relax and enjoy the game.
Youth Football is a lot different than professional football. It’s important to have a different mindset when watching a youth game. At professional level, players are mature, there is a lot of money involved and a lot of interests. At youth development the goal is different, the players are children and it’s obvious that the approach needs to be different. Players are developing their personality, skills, values, and what they learn with a sport can be translated to life later, whether they pursue a career in football or not.
- Don’t focus on the opposite team. Don’t say things like: ” This team won the cup last time, you really have to try your best”. Players already want to do their best. Pep-talks like this might put too much pressure on young players and harm performance
- Sit back and enjoy the game. Don’t say things like: ”pay attention”, “wake up”. Don’t complain about the referee. Stay positive.
- After the game, read the room! Your child probably does not want to keep talking about their loss. Talk about what was good, don’t complain about the other team, a team member or the referee. Move on.
- Most importantly, talk to your child and find out what works for your family. What does your child feel comfortable with. Football is supposed to be fun!