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Friday, October 15, 2010

The Problem With Playing To Win

The ultimate goal of any competition is to win. It’s doubtful that there would be any debating that statement.

Some games or events are bigger or more significant than others so winning might seem more important in those cases, but in the end it all comes down to which team comes out on top in any game that is played.

Oddly enough a team could play poorly and still win on the scoreboard and the perception by most people would be that everything is peaches and cream. Winning will do that.

Conversely, a team could play unquestionably its best game of the season yet come out on the wrong end on the scoreboard and the consensus would probably still be that they came up short. Losing will do that.

Obviously, winning is important. We always play to win. The more wins we get the better. The more wins we get the higher in the standings we finish.

What happens if we don’t?
But what if we don’t win? What if the team has little or no chance of winning, because of circumstances beyond their control, like when their coach enters them at a level where they are over-matched and have no chance of success? And what if a team is so good that it never loses or is never challenged and wins every game with little effort? Are those wins really that important? Are they even really wins if the outcome was never ever in doubt?

Ultimately wins are nothing more than units of measure, like markings on a ruler or mileage on the odometer of a vehicle. The difference is that some of those miles are on a much better trip than others. Some are of a much higher quality than others.

The concept of winning and losing in youth sports is a bird of a different feather than at the professional level. And by professional level I mean the levels of play where people’s jobs are at stake. That is definitely not the case, or if it is it shouldn’t be, at the youth level. It would be pretty sad that someone’s livelihood was determined by the ability or inability of the performance of kids in a recreational sport.

Way too serious
Even so, there are many coaches and parents who take winning way more seriously than they should. They get far too excited and feeling good about themselves (even though they were not involved in the outcome) when their child’s team wins and far too upset after a loss.

At the end of the day, the outcome of a single game or a team’s position in the standings really shouldn’t have that much of a positive or negative impact on any adult’s life. Other than we should be proud and supportive of our kids’ efforts and glad that they have the opportunity to compete and realize the benefits derived from participating in a team sport.

But all too often we lose sight of the process and get fixated on the outcome. We are so worried about our objective that we don’t take the opportunity to enjoy the ride.

If we really opened our eyes we would see that there is way more to the journey than there is to the destination. The problem is that it is much more difficult to gauge where you stand without a unit of measure like winning a game or sitting on top of the standings. Can we really determine that our team played well if they lost the game? How can we really tell if there was any improvement or growth by the players? Can we really call ourselves a good team if we are sitting at or near the bottom of the standings?

Short-term solution
And that is where we often get into trouble as it relates to playing to win. Getting the win becomes all too important because it is the only way we can assess where we stand. The measurement becomes way more important than anything else. Way more important than it should be.

In youth sports, when coaches make decisions based on the scoreboard in a game or the team’s position in the standings, the results are typically more negative than positive. The short-term solution to winning a game is to play the better players more and the weaker players less or not at all.

If you really think about it, there really is not much in the way of “coaching” involved in that decision. There is no opportunity for the players that are perceived to not be able to get it done to actually get it done. It’s tough to do anything sitting on the bench. How does a coach really know what they can or can’t do if they never have the chance? How do those players improve and learn how to compete and get experience in different situations if they never have the opportunity?

Worse yet, all too often the better players get over-played, even to the point where it is detrimental to their performance because they are too worn out to be able to compete to the level that they should and could if they were getting a proper amount of time. So nobody wins in that scenario. At least not from the players’ standpoint.

Skill development takes time
When the scoreboard and the standings influence decision-making too much, coaches tend to get impatient in practice planning and begin to spend a disproportionate amount of time attempting to teach their team concepts that they think might give their team a better chance of winning. Typically coaches will spend a great deal of time working on organizational and strategic things like breakouts and power plays.

The problem is that to execute breakouts and power plays and offensive zone cycling and neutral zone forechecking, players need to have the technical skills to skate and be in the right position, handle the puck, pass, receive and shoot with their heads up and have a sense of positioning, timing and the decision-making ability to do the right thing at the right time.

Without the technical skill sets that require hours and hours of proper repetition in practice, the execution of breakouts and power plays is virtually impossible and the practice time wasted.

Probably the most frustrating feeling as a coach is when it seems like you aren’t making a difference. Skill development can be time-consuming and tedious and improvement never seems to come fast enough. It can be easy to think that you are going nowhere. Especially when the only quantifiable unit of measure for most people is wins and losses and the team’s position in the standings. Especially when you are doing more losing and winning and the team is closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Probably the worst mistake a coach can make is to coach by the scoreboard and the standings. More often than not, bad short-term decisions translate into worse long-term results for the players.

It’s not that winning is not important. It is. But it should be the by-product of good coaching decisions, not the driving force for bad ones.


  1. Amen brother!
    Here's to the coaches that really want to teach our sport.

    The "Big Picture" is not always easy to see.

  2. Really, really well stated.