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Monday, February 22, 2010

The importance of winning and losing

Winning is important. When we play, we play to win. And we should. There are a number of other reasons to participate in a competitive sport, but one of the most important reasons is always to win. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any need for a scoreboard and there wouldn’t be a lot of the great elements that are part of a competition.

I have never been a big fan of the saying that "winning is not important". Because it is. It always is. At every level. We play the game, and we compete, with the ultimate goal of winning. It’s that simple. Adults and kids of every age love to win and hate to lose. Some more so than others. And there is nothing wrong with that. But we are kidding ourselves if we think that winning isn’t important.
Youth sports studies always indicate that winning does not rank high on the list of reasons why kids participate in competitive sports. And that is very true. If you have ever had the pleasure of coaching kids of any age you should understand that. Having fun, meeting new friends, being part of a team and learning new skills are always higher on that list. Winning comes much closer to the bottom for kids. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them. Nor does it mean that it isn’t an important part of competition. It is just not as high a priority for kids.

More important to adults
The reality is that winning is much more important to the adults than it is to the kids. The problems arise when adults are unable to cope with winning and losing in sports. In their own adult games that they play, or worse yet, in games that are for the kids and the adults are merely involved as coaches or spectators.

Like most adults, I love to win and have always hated to lose. In fact, I have always been a horrible loser. I am sure that part of it was because of the culture I was brought up in. The other team never played well enough to beat us. When we lost it was because we played poorly enough to lose.
It can be difficult to give credit where credit is due – namely to the other team when they have defeated you. The first time I can actually remember that happening was when I was playing professionally in the American Hockey League and our coach Robbie Ftorek told us after a game that we had played as well as we could that day, but the other team played better.

Maybe that is a result of having been fortunate enough to have played on good teams where we were expected to win or had a chance to win every game. That is not always the case. Maybe it was a result of coaches not recognizing how well the team actually did play on a given day because they didn’t win. If you didn’t win, you couldn’t have played well, could you?

Measuring success
And that is one of the biggest problems with winning. It is the only measure of success in some people’s eyes. A couple of years ago I was coaching a girls team that lost a hard-fought 3-1 game to an opponent that was a little better than we were on most nights and probably should have beaten us 75% of the time that we played them.

In the post-game mingling in the lobby while waiting for the players to come out several of the parents gave it the old "Well, they just didn’t have it tonight, did they?" Well, actually they did. In fact after the first period, which we dominated territorially yet trailed 1-0 on a late goal, both I and our other coach said to each other, pretty much at exactly the same time, "What was that? That was the best period we have played all year!"

It actually was one of the best games that we played the whole year. But because we ended up losing that night, the perception was that we didn’t play well.

One of the main problems with the importance of winning and losing is that many people use that as their sole form of measurement in how the game went. Lose? Bad. Win? Good. Even though at times it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I have coached teams that have had virtually no chance of winning games, yet gave a great effort and played as well as they could. Unfortunately because they lost the prevailing thought among the players and their parents was that they had "played awful".

I have also coached teams that could have, should have and did beat an inferior opponent without their best effort. Because they won, the players and parents thought that they had played well, even though they were not good at all that day. That’s a tough "coaching moment". While you want to and have to give your team credit for doing what they are supposed to do - winning the game - at the same time you need to attempt to get them to understand that winning isn’t everything. Giving their best effort and playing as well as they can is. Sometimes the wrong message gets sent with a win.

The most important element
Actually winning can mask a lot of problems with a team. Everything must be going well right? The coach must be good. The players must be learning and improving.

Conversely losing can create problems that aren’t really there at all. But there has to be something wrong, doesn’t there? Someone has to be to blame, don’t they?

Really, it is not winning, or the measurement, that is the most important element of a game. Rather it is competing, the process and the path that is much more significant. To me, one of the greatest benefits of playing a sport is competing. Giving it your best effort and seeing where that takes you. Over time, your best effort will undoubtedly result in improvement. If you are fortunate it will even result in some wins.

Unfortunately there are many players who never get the opportunity to see both sides of the equation. Some players always end up on the better teams and while it looks like a good deal short-term to win all of the time, long-term it can actually be a detriment to the player. They never have the chance to learn the lessons that only losing can teach you about what it takes to be a winner. And, maybe more importantly, how to handle it when you don’t win.

Conversely there are players that always seem to end up on the weaker teams that lose much more frequently than they win. Ironically, these are the kids that just might get the most benefit out of participating, although it never seems so at the time. They have the opportunity to learn how to compete and what it takes to close that gap between losing and winning.

To some, parity is a dirty word and is equated with trying to "dumb down the game" or bring the best "back to the pack" and giving the rest a chance to catch up.

But to me it is more about creating great competition. In youth sports parity provides the players (and their coaches) with the best opportunity to experience everything that both winning and losing have to offer.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Playing the game

It was a little over a year ago that we first heard the two 3-word phrases that have been on the lips of many people in the hockey world ever since - American Development Model (better known as the ADM) and High Performance Clubs (also more commonly referred to as the HPC).
At first there was a great deal of confusion and a considerable amount of angst from those who immediately perceived the new concepts as restrictive in nature, potentially robbing their child of an opportunity. To do what, they really weren’t sure. But if there was going to be a change, in their minds it certainly wasn’t going to be for the better for their hockey player.

Others instantly proclaimed the ADM concept to be the best thing since the goalie mask. The game was going to be revolutionized, with elite American players to be produced in record numbers.

Here in Michigan there was extensive prognostication and debate over which programs would be anointed with the High Performance Club seal of approval, instantly making them the odds on favorites to attract all of the best players in the area to their teams. Plans began to be made, alliances were formed and the wheels of change started to roll forward.

Taking shape
Questions? There were plenty of those. There still are. Over a year later. But there are also a lot more answers now than there were this time last year as well. USA Hockey staffers have crisscrossed the country making countless presentations detailing the research, thought and science behind the concept. Program Managers have been hired and assigned to sections of the country to continue to spread the message. Plans have begun to be unveiled. The structure is starting to take shape.

I have heard the presentations several times and they are thorough and impressive. Yet, it probably wouldn’t hurt me to hear it a few more times. Might be age, might be too many concussions. But I do understand the thought process. The child development research is clear to me. It all makes complete sense. I have lived it and seen it over and over again and again in the forty some years that I have been involved in hockey.

As a parent and coach I have also witnessed the results of a similar philosophy utilized in youth soccer. It makes sense. It works in soccer.

Change is never easy. It is much more difficult when one believes that they are losing out in the change, going backward. Resistance to change is guaranteed. People need proof. People want results. But results take time.

And while I very much believe in and agree with much of the philosophy presented in the ADM and HPC models, I still do have questions too. What exactly will it look like? What will the initial effect be? How will things be changed two years down the road? Five years? They are all questions that can’t be answered until we actually live it. The truth is nobody really knows for certain what the impact on the game will be. Short term or long term.

Better players and more of them
While there are a number of different elements to the ADM, to sum it up in a nutshell it is about producing more better players. By making the game more affordable and user-friendly at the entry levels the hope is to attract more participants. By providing those participants with a more productive environment in which to train and play the hope is to develop more players who have the opportunity to play the game at a higher level, if that is what they choose to do.

From that respect the model makes a great deal of sense to me. Our current structure, particularly here in Michigan, is probably the poster child for much of what is wrong with youth hockey and why we produce so comparatively few high-end players from participation numbers that are always in the top three in the nation.

We begin tryouts as young as seven, when kids have minimal skating and playing experience, with just enough skill for coaches to somewhat discern the select few to make the grade. And it should come as no surprise that the bigger, more mature are the ones who most often do so.

From there, those selected players typically get the more experienced coaches, and more importantly usually skate three times per week as opposed to the two that the house leaguers who couldn’t make the cut get. It doesn’t require scientists and researchers to figure out which kids have the best opportunity to turn out to be the better players given those differences.

Skimming the cream
And that’s where it gets tricky. The parents of that group don’t want to lose out on the early edge that their child has. Why should their kid be held back? He can skate. He can play. Seven year old Mite A hockey can actually look "pretty good". Relatively speaking. NHL hockey is pretty good too. But when the world’s best players get together for the Olympics in a couple of weeks we will be treated to a level of play that we only get to see once every four years.

The point is that whenever you skim the cream off of the top, it is going to look pretty good compared to the milk. At least for a while. So how do we keep that cream from going sour while giving the rest of the milk an opportunity to catch up?

Here in Michigan we don’t do a very good job of that. And until you have been through it and seen what it is like at the other end, it is very difficult for the parent of a "good" Mite player to understand that less really might be more for their child. A lot can happen between the ages of 7 and 17. More games, more travel, more tournaments and more A’s behind the team name don’t always translate into more in terms of playing hockey at the higher levels.

Actually our system doesn’t do a very good job of providing a development opportunity for any players. The ones that don’t make the cut early on get too little. The early maturers, who do make that critical early cut, then play in a system that doesn’t necessarily translate into allowing them to become good hockey players.

I get that. I agree with that. But I also wonder how much that really matters. More better players would be a wonderful byproduct of a great hockey program. But I don’t necessarily think it should be the most important consideration in creating one.

More importantly
In my opinion there are two much more important elements. First it is the financial viability of ice arenas. If there is no place to play, then none of it really matters. If the ADM translates into more players, as is proposed, then that would be great. More players playing a more affordable game for all would be a plus.

But more importantly, I don’t think we should lose sight of the most important three word phrase: Playing the game. It is play. It is a game. No matter how we slice it up and market it with names like AAA and Elite or sell development and performance, at the end of the day it is all just recreational hockey. People choose to play. Or not. We need to make sure that the game is attractive enough for them to play.