There is a lot of talk these days about the nature of youth sport and the intent of it. Still many coaches will focus on winning, sometimes at any cost. If you’ve ever been to a kid’s soccer tournament you’ll have seen the 12-year-old fly like Superman, hit the deck and roll around clutching his ankle before realising he isn’t getting a decision and sprinting off like Usain Bolt. It’s sad. It happens. It’s a disgrace, and so are the coaches who teach it, allow it, and fail to punish it.
However, this is not to say that winning isn’t important, it is just not important at any cost. Especially the cost of development.
Johan Cruyff is said to have told a story about a young player he had been told was the best. He looked in the different teams and couldn’t find him, eventually finding him in the 3rd youth team. In a discussion with the coaches Cruyff said “Put him in the first team. He will grow. Everybody grows.”
“Yes, but we will lose.” Replied the coaches.
“If we lose, we lose. We need to create players” Was Cruyff’s response.
Development must come before winning. It has to or the players won’t develop as they get older. However, winning is important, in fact, in a long term plan it is the most important aspect, which is why the right foundations need to be laid.
Without Cruyff changing the mentality at Barcelona and making the coaches give a young player by the name of Pep Guardiola a chance, would they have Lionel Messi today? Had they failed to develop Guardiola simply because of his size, what would the cost have been to Barcelona? This opened the door for Messi. Where would Barcelona be if Messi had been uncovered by a different team? What has Messi given to Barcelona in response? Or even bigger, the game globally? Messi is a legend, arguably the best player ever. He could so easily have been overlooked. Not only on the field results could have been impacted, but the global brand and millions of dollars in sponsorship, advertising, and any other number of income sources.
How many smaller and younger players have been overlooked because of the misfortune of being born at the wrong end of the athletic year? I am sure that if we are honest, every coach will put their hand up and admit it has been a thought as they put their team together, but have we really treated younger and smaller players fairly? Are we missing out on some hidden potential because we have bigger and faster players who can win games? What happens to these players if they work harder to improve but the coach never notices simply because they are still smaller? Do they keep going? Get discouraged? What happens to the bigger, faster players who don’t feel competition to keep their performance up? Do they continue to work as hard? How are they being pushed and developed?
Winning is the measure of performance. A swimmer measures performance by how fast they can get from one end of the pool to another, using their own personal best and the times of others. Why time it if it’s not about performance improvement? And why compete if not to win? A gymnast is reliant on the scores from a judge and they can measure their performance by improved scores. These scores are then compared to the scores of others. In soccer, individuals know they are improving when they make stronger tackles in defence, assist for a goal, score a goal or save a shot. A soccer team knows they are getting better because they score more goals and let in fewer. In all instances, people know they are performing better when they win more. Winning is the outcome of development. Focus on development and the results will follow.
A youth coach is there to develop and give the skills for future wins. The tough part for the coach and the parents of the players is to realise that development of a team sometimes means sacrificing results, losing some games, and investing in the future. For some parents and players who want instant success, especially if the player is already performing at a high level, waiting for others to catch up can be frustrating. A youth coach is in place to help players progress.
What is the alternative? What happens in later years when the coach puts out the strongest team and gives all the playing time to those blessed by being born at the right time of year, or are naturally bigger and stronger at a younger age? What is the future for a club, especially a smaller one, that focuses on winning with bigger and stronger players at the cost of development? The promising smaller players went to another club, and the bigger stronger players became average sized players who were never challenged. How did that serve the development of anyone well? Winning is important, but if it is done the right way, it will take time to arrive and it is never the destination in youth sport, simply a marker for how you are doing on the journey.
We started with Cruyff, and it is fitting that we end with him – “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”
Develop the young mind, and the young legs will catch up.