We have often talked on this site about the importance of winning to people but trying to ensure that the winning is not the primary success criteria in children’s sport. Unfortunately, winning and results still dominates the vast majority of the grassroots landscape.
With this in mind what can organisations and coaches do to help change the tone of children’s sport and focus on what is really important?
The inspiration for the following article comes from my old sports coach Neil Rollings who now runs a successful coach education company. The full and original article can be found below.
How important is winning? The answer to this – apparently spurious – question massively influences the success criteria of children’s sport. If winning is the most important thing, it has implications that are far reaching. It influences how the game is coached, refereed, team selection, substitution, as well as the attitudes of players, coaches and parents to the opposition, the referee, cheating and their respect for the game.
The tone and spirit of children’s sport has changed significantly in the last twenty years. And not for the better. In the absence of more compelling success criteria, the default position has become the value system of the Daily Telegraph and Sky Sports – what are the results? Who has won? Who is unbeaten?
What is the implication of it all?
When winning becomes the driving force of children’s sport, lots of things change. The atmosphere becomes more unforgiving, and the values change from those of education to those of professional sport. The locus of blame shifts subtly. The referee ceases to be the respected figure of facilitation, and is now under intense scrutiny for signs of incompetence, blindness and bias. Players, coaches and parents feel at liberty to comment negatively on referee performance, and opposition performance: coaches are eager to discuss shortcomings with all constituencies, both candidly and critically. Taking their lead from this, and the additional influence of the referee microphone at Sky Sports, children of all ages are not reluctant to offer the referee advice, or to question his competence or partiality.
The losing team is slow to accept that the opposition simply outperformed them, preferring to blame outside forces, including the opposition, the referee or even the competence of their own coach. This inclination is not discouraged by their parents or coaches, who are also keen to allocate blame. Experienced coaches and teachers feel at liberty to comment publicly and emotionally to their pupils, parents and colleagues. Vanquished teams are slow to congratulate their victors for a superior performance, or simply to recognise the opposition’s contribution – or that of the referee – to a great sporting contest. The idea that a great game can end in defeat (and still be a great game) is infrequently acknowledged.
“Well done, you were better than us” is an expression falling into disuse. “Thanks for a great game” gives way too often to a cursory and sullen handshake.
When winning is the most important thing, the the beauty of the game, the earnestness of the endeavour and the spirit of the game are consolation prizes for the wrong result. The atmosphere is soured, and half the participants depart embittered. Victory is a zero sum game, and can, by definition, be enjoyed by only approximately half of participants. Unlike participatory achievements, which can be simultaneously enjoyed by both teams. Children must learn to value the intrinsic satisfaction of taking part in the contest, not just recognise the extrinsic result. The question, “How did you get on?” can legitimately be answered without numbers.
The power of the role model is massive. The shop window of professional sport cannot be depended upon to establish or reinforce traditional values. At a time when these are under constant threat, the parent/coach role model becomes more important. Proactively teaching the values of sportsmanship, and celebrating them begins with example. If all parties are prepared to tolerate children, parents, coaches and organisations behaving histrionically in defeat, and resorting to blame, then the educational value of the game is massively impoverished. The last time I looked, there wasn’t an Under 11 B World Cup, but the atmosphere of some games would suggest that there might be.
The power lies with the clubs and schools. They can choose to properly teach the values and culture of games, and to challenge declining standards of parental behaviour, or indeed find ways of engaging parents in a more positive way. Or they can shrink from this, and tolerate a sour, aggressive, match atmosphere on many weekends. The deteriorating ambience of children’s sport will not change itself.