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Player Development vs Winning At All Costs

Recently, we have been asked to lead some coaching education seminars at a few clubs around the area. Mostly it was for parent volunteer coaches who wanted to coach at the recreation level. We went back and forth on what to include in the session, as we knew that most of the coaches had a limited coaching experience and for some it was their first time coaching. In the end, we decided to base the entire session entire session around one main goal: Player Development. 


People who get into coaching will always say that the development of a player and a team is their number one goal. However, watching many of the coaches around the area for the last several years this concept seems to have fallen by the wayside in favor of another goal: Winning. Winning, in itself is not inherently a bad thing. Indeed, I think it is a very important thing for all aspiring athletes. But, it has seemed to us that many coaches have sacrificed player development in favor of winning games. It is our view that this short term thinking that can jeopardize the longer-term development of individual players and teams. 


What is Player Development?

Player Development may have many different definitions to many different people. Dictionary definition is to “bring out the capabilities or possibilities of; bring to a more advanced or effective state”. In other words it is to improve at a particular skill or action. We, ourselves, like to think of development on a more holistic level. Our entire reason for being supplemental trainers is to improve/develop both players and people. But it seems to us that many coaches are sacrificing development to get another check in the W-column. 


When to Win, and When to Develop 

Anyone whose job does not depend on the results of the team should always be Player Development. I personally can think of only 3 jobs within coaching that depend on results. 1. Head Coach of a professional/semi-professional team (USL, MLS). 2. Head College Coach. 3. Head Varsity High School Coach (to some extent). For these individuals they’re livelihood depends on their teams winning games. The entire reason for that team existing in the first place is to win games. I would not expect any professional or college coach to be happy with any loss even if the players “developed”. If the team you are coaching reason for existence is to win games then you’re main goal should be to win games. Player development is still important, however probably will be a secondary goal. 

On the other hand, coaches of travel teams, grassroots teams, MLS academy teams, supplemental coaches, and probably any other coaches of any other teams, main goal should be Player Development. The number one priority for these coaches should be that week-in, week-out the players on their team improve, learn and grow. Winning should be secondary to this. If you coach one these teams or players your goal should be to see them to develop to a point where they can go on and play at another team of a higher standard. It is always been my view that if you are the best player on your team, you are on the wrong team. Unfortunately, many coaches at the youth level seem to lose sight of the individual player, instead focusing on what is in the Win and Loss column. 

Undervaluing achievement and fooling kids that you’ll always get a “well done” for trying, is not realistic and does not promote holistic development

Winning is still Important but not the Main Goal

To make it clear, I do believe that winning (and losing) is still important. It fosters a competitive spirit in young athletes. I am also not one of those who believe in giving out trophies for participation. Undervaluing achievement and fooling kids that you’ll always get a “well done” for trying, is not realistic and does not promote holistic development (but that’s another blog post). Winning games, however, should not come at the expense of a player’s development. I can think of many examples where coaches have their players kick the ball as far down the field as possible and have their most athletic player run after it. This may be effective (especially at younger age groups) but does it improve a players passing, decision making, or ability to play out from pressure? As kids age it is these technical and cognitive abilities that become more important and, as they get to the high school and college level, players who are technically advanced and cognitively sharp always out perform those with natural athletic ability and the ability to kick the ball a great distance. 


Perhaps it is coming from a country where soccer is almost a religion, but it is always discouraging for me to hear applause from the sideline for a long punt up field. Indeed many parents in the US never played soccer growing up. The only recent rise in popularity of the sport in the US meant that many parents now watching from the sideline played American Football or Baseball growing up. For this I cannot fault them as they most likely equate long punts to territory gained. A team whose sole tactic is to punt the ball as far up field as possible will probably win because of it, at least at first.  This reinforces the attitude that kicking the ball long and running after it is a good thing. What is not realized is that soccer is a team sport and players being unable to pass and move the ball out of the back will only be a detriment to them and their development in the longer term. Kicking the ball as far as possible is just one example of when winning overshadows player development.

Winning needs be seen as a byproduct of development rather than the main goal

There needs to be a shift in thinking in the attitude of some coaches and some parents. Winning needs be seen as a byproduct of development rather than the main goal. Improving players, improves the team, with the result being more games are won. It is not a zero sum game. It is not one without the other. Instead winning is simply the result of having developed players. If a U10 player had won the majority of their games in their age group and run faster than anyone else on the field but cannot pass a ball 5 yards, that player will most likely become less and less effective as they age. Any player or coach who has been involved in soccer for several years has seen players like this. Winning does not equal development.

A coach’s ego should not be so great that it sacrifices the development of a player for the their own self-validation 

How Do You Put Player Development First

It’s all good to say what is wrong with this system but how is it fixed? Ego plays a massive part in this. A coach, wants to win everything they can to validate themselves as a coach. Many people also equate the wins you have to how good of a coach you are. This trickles down all the way to the grass roots level. Indeed, I think that some level of ego is important to be an effective coach. It helps you control practices and lead effective sessions if you are confident in what you are saying and doing. It is, however, a balance. A coach’s ego should not be so great that it sacrifices the development of a player for the their own self-validation. 


A real world example of this is a coach refusing to let their best players join another, superior team. A coach wants to keep their best players so that they can win more games. But lets look at this with Player Development as our number one goal.  That player plays, week-in, week-out with players of a lesser ability. Is this really allowing this player to improve to his or her full potential? Instead I think it is the responsibility of each and every coach to push their best players to even better teams so that they are playing with better players and can keep developing. If you are the best player on your team you are on the wrong team. 


Another, perhaps more extreme, example would be to rotate players in positions every week. If a U10 coach has a player who is playing striker and scoring 5 goals a game, but is very poor at defending is striker the position where this player is going to learn how to defend? Yes you may keep winning but is this striker ever going to learn the basics of defending and become a well-rounded player. Players are asked to play different positions all the time all the way up to the highest professional level. Playing just one position, again, may win you games but does it allow players to develop to their full potential. 


Coaches who implement a Player Development approach over a Win At All Costs approach are often met with pushback from team parents about playing time, positions, and coaching decisions made. Communicating to the parents the reasons why you are making these decisions is therefore important. A lot of them may have a Win-At-All-Cost mindset so communicating your rationale not only to them but also the players is essential. After you have done this every decision you make must be consistent with Player Development despite complaints and losses (and you will probably take some losses). The questions becomes can you sacrifice the short term ego boost for long term Player Development? 


People Development

At Beestera we have tried to take the Player Development concept further by including ways to develop the person. We realize that only a very small percentage of players go on to play professionally. This is why we like to put just as much importance on People Development as well as Player Development. We see coaching life skills, which have may have little relevance to the technical aspects of soccer, as of equal importance to coaching soccer skills. Coaches have responsibility to teach skills such as responsibility, communication, and ownership at every opportunity. Requiring players to be on time, have all the right equipment, and line bags up neatly are just small examples of requirements that can be implemented to set standards and through them develop human beings. Being consistent to these standards throughout the season or the year is what really makes and impression and I have been consistently surprised with how maturity develops as part of a team with standards. Developing the person is just as (if not more) important than Player Development.


Endnote

This post is not an attack on all the parents and coaches that volunteer both their time and energy to ensure that kids have the opportunity to play the game of soccer. Soccer would not be the growing sport it is in the US today without these coaches sacrificing their Saturdays and Sundays to coach the beautiful game. Rather it is just an idea that may provide a framework for coaches new to the game of soccer to use. Making decisions from a Player Development standpoint rather than a Win-At-All-Costs standpoint I believe promotes the longer term sustainability of the game of soccer and will encourage more and more kids to play the game well throughout their lives. I would like to end by saying thank you to all those parents who do give tremendous amounts of time and energy to both coaching and all the other things that allow millions of kids to play soccer in US. 


Thanks for reading,


- Matt Needham

Beestera Soccer Training

www.beesterasoccertraining.com


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