This is the third article in a trilogy about youth sport and what we should be thinking about when we determine what winning means. So far we have looked at the goal of development, and thinking beyond bigger, stronger and faster to determine which players are going to be the most talented. We have also talked about how we should be ready to sacrifice some positive scorelines in order to get long-term results.
Development, above all else is the key focus for a successful youth coach. There is little value to anyone in having bigger, stronger, and faster kids playing in their strongest positions for 5 or 6 years when their whole lives are ahead of them. They may win some trophies, but what have they learned that keeps them competitive as they move into college and compete against others of a similar size and speed? We need to develop and help improve performance in yound players, building decision-making, and team-work skills. This takes time, may result in losses, and it starts in the mind.
I was at a youth soccer game recently when the defender had to clear the ball off the line. The goalie had left his line to close the striker down but the striker got around him. The defender ran to the line and had the ball at his feet. He had maybe two seconds to make a decision before the attacker was on him. He had a few options, the best of which would have been to kick it to the side where a team-mate could support. The “decision” he made? He kicked it at the oncoming attacker, and the ball rebounded off the attacker into the goal. It wasn’t so much a decision as a reaction. It’s not his fault though, he was doing what he has been taught.
The defender had never been taught to relax on the ball and make a good decision under pressure. In the past he had heard shouts of “clear it” and “get it away” so often whenever the ball went into the area that when it came to crunch time, he did exactly that. He kicked it away, right at the attacker. However, it’s not just kids who panic under pressure and make poor decisions.
Here is an amazing quote by Barcelona’s Xavi that discusses both aspects of the last two articles:
“Have you seen [the Villarreal winger] Santi Cazorla? You think I’m small, he’s up to here on me [Xavi signals his chest]. And yet he’s brilliant. Messi is the same and he’s the best player in the world. Maybe it’s the culture, I don’t know, but in England you’re warriors. You watch Liverpool and Carragher wins the ball and boots it into the stands and the fans applaud. There’s a roar! They’d never applaud that here.”
Here are the three take aways for today:
1 – Winning is just one measure of performance, and it is not necessarily the measure of growth or development. It is not always the measure of how good a player is, how good a coach is, or how good the team is. It can be, but a lot of winning could also mean a coach is putting strong players in their best positions, or even playing weaker opposition. Consistent winning, and seeing players move on to bigger things in the future is hard-earned and takes time. It comes at a cost.
2 – Performance and development should be the true measurements of “winning”. 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. You cannot reliably measure performance when an external factor is in play. It’s another measure, but not the only measure.
3 – If we focus on performance, the results will come, but it may take time. 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 against the same competition. 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.
We started with Johan 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.
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Xavi quote: Xavi article in The Guardian