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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.

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