Is Youth Sport About Performance Or Results?

Sport is a results based industry. A coach or manager failing to succeed will soon find themselves out of a job, but should results alone dictate whether a team, a coach, or a player are considered to be successful? Harry Redknapp lost his job as manager of Birmingham City after a string of poor results. Last season he kept them in the Premier League, this year he had a bad run of results and was let go early in the season.

In an interview with the BBC Redknapp said:

“Given time, we would have turned it round but whoever goes in is going to take over a good group.”

“Unfortunately I couldn’t get the players in that I was after and it went down to deadline week before I got a big influx. Then it was six players making their debut on one day, then three games in that week, so even working on the training ground was difficult. It’s a shame I didn’t have the chance to see it through but time is something you don’t get an awful lot of.”

The sad thing is this sends a message to kids, parents, and coaches up and down the game that results are king. They are not. At least not to people who care about the development of the game. Not to Johan Cruyff. Maybe to the owner of a club who stands to make or lose millions the results are king, but to those trying to develop players, results should definitely not be king. Results are the outcome of other factors that take time to manage and shape.
What are these factors? Preparation for game day, including tactics, team selection, understanding the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and mental readiness. These are things a coach can have some influence over. Then there are other factors such as the weather, the state of the playing field, the opponent’s team selection and tactics, injuries, referee decisions, and a host of other external influences.

Results are ultimately nothing more than indicators of a series of factors, some controllable and some not controllable. This becomes a lot more complex when dealing with youth sport. Unless the team is playing at a very high level, the average coach is unable to know a great deal about their opposition, they cannot predict the weather, and they play on whatever surface they are told, which is not always top quality. Then there are refs, who in youth sports, often tend to favour the home team and can be inconsistent to say the least. I’ve seen a player kicked in the head and lay motionless while play continue around him, and I’ve seen a free kick given because two players from the same team ran into each other. If results are indicators of controllable and uncontrollable factors at professional levels, how much more so at amateur and youth levels? How will focusing on results in a highly unpredictable environment impact the confidence of youth players?

If we want our children to grow up with confidence in their abilities, we need to focus them on things they can control and let them feel good about their achievements. These include their work rate and focus, and we need to help them work towards their goals as an individual and a team player. If a young player has spent hours every day learning a new skill and they execute it perfectly several times in a game but the team loses, where is the motivation to continue improving if all that work is judged on a loss, and the coach doesn’t praise them? Shouldn’t the player feel a sense of achievement at having learned a new skill and used it in a game? What is more important in youth sport, the result of a game, or performance and development? Johan Cruyff says development, and the discovery of Lionel Messi is a direct result of Cruyff’s legacy. If development in youth soccer was the focus for Cruyff, shouldn’t it be the focus of every other youth coach?

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – There are so many areas missed in a game that many people don’t notice. There are great decisions young players make that they are never asked about or encouraged because most people want to focus on goals, not performances or development. There are things young players work on at home to improve their skills and impress their team-mates or coach that may go unnoticed because the next game is a loss. Discouraged that their hard work was unrecognised because of the loss, they don’t do it again. I am not saying we shouldn’t play to win games, we absolutely should. I am saying that when it comes to the development of kids there are areas of greater value to count as a win than a scoreline.

2 – Coaching a player is a temporary position and the value of the legacy goes far beyond a scoreline. As a coach my favourite moments haven’t been when a game or tournament is won. I enjoy those moments, some more than others, but my favourite moments have been when an inexperienced player grows from feeling timid and hiding in the game to becoming confident, taking on players, and winning challenges. When we see a player grow and move on to another coach in a better place than we found him or her, that is the result that counts for the long haul, not the score in the last game.

3 – Don’t let positives be missed. I would recommend Dr. Rob Bell’s book Don’t Should On Your Kids. One habit we have got into in our house is that the first question is always “What did you enjoy most about the game?” Win, lose or draw, the first thought is always a positive. In a time of high emotion, especially after a tough loss, a full debrief of what went wrong can be worse than the result itself.

Coaches create lifelong memories. Our kids today are playing games they will remember for the rest of their lives, and I hope that when it comes to my son he is able to remember the games he gave everything, when he tried new things that came off, and that the score doesn’t take away the feeling of achievement if it’s a game the team lost.

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