Trying to Win Is the Point

Barry Rubin offers an anecdote with which many of us will likely be sympathetic:

My son is playing on a local soccer team which has lost every one of its games, often by humiliating scores. The coach is a nice guy, but seems an archetype of contemporary thinking: he tells the kids not to care about whether they win, puts players at any positions they want, and doesn’t listen to their suggestions. …
And of course, the league gives trophies to everyone, whether their team finishes in first or last place.

Parents with children in “recreational” leagues (which may be paired with “competitive” leagues) have likely noticed that the kids know who wins the games even if the coaches do not keep score. One real loss of the non-competitive structure is that the kids cannot take joy in their improvement; one of my children played the same team at the beginning and end of its season. The first time, the game wasn’t even close; the last, it was a tie. (Of course, the parents keep score, too.) Even a loss may be a win if there’s reason to be proud of some sort of achievement other than fun and exercise. The trophy is another marker of this: If everybody gets one, then it’s little more than a cheap plastic party favor.
For his part, Baron tried an experiment:

When the opportunity came to step in as coach for one game, I jumped at the chance to try an experiment. I’ve never coached a sport before, and am certainly no expert at soccer despite my son’s efforts. Still, I thought the next game could be won by simply placing players in the positions they merited, and motivating them to triumph. …
Before the game, I gave them a pep talk, with the key theme as follows:

Every week you’ve been told that the important thing is just to have a good time. Well, this week it’s going to be different. The number one goal is to win; the number two goal is to have a good time. But I assure you: if you win, you will have a much better time!

One can go too far stressing that attitude, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t absolutely correct in appropriate degree. It’ll be interesting to see whether Rubin checks back in to describe the aftermath of his experiment.

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13 years ago

I think his pep talk can be taken a little out of context. For some people, winning isn’t necessarily more fun. It depends on where they’re playing and how much they’re playing. Also, we have no idea how he decided how players merited certain positions. Simply by skill, or by effort?
Usually when I coach kids, in the house league, I tell them my priorities are:
1. To learn how to play the game right
2. To get better at the game.
3. Play hard and respectfully
4. To have fun
5. if we do all those things, we’ll win our share of games.
On the competitive travel/tournament teams, then it’s explained up front that the goal is to win, but not at all costs. Never embarrass yourself, your teammates or the town you represent. Play the game right, play hard and play to win.
The philosophy really needs to be based on the level of the team. House leagues are for learning the game and getting better. Travel/tournament is for winning.

13 years ago

I have experience coaching in youth sports – for both boys & girls. The parents are by far the worst part of the youth athletic experience. I’m blessed that my kids are not serious about winning. Of course I’ll admit that them not having athletic gifts certainly contributes to that. I coached my son’s basketball team last year – we were 1-10 but all five of the eligible boys asked to return to my team. They had fun – even in losing.
My biggest beef which goes along with your post is the “mercy” rule. In soccer, if one team is winning by 5 or more goals, they are ‘penalized’ for scoring again. Penalized. They do a better job in basketball just not allowing a team winning by more than 20 pts to press at the end of the game. But still, winning and losing is a part of life. Protecting kids from the ‘agony of defeat’ is NOT doing them any favors. It’s more likely for the parents – which is a sad statement in an of itself.
I could go on and on … but I’ll apply the mercy rule.

Bob Walsh
Bob Walsh
13 years ago

Agreed – let’s not penalize the team that knows how to play the game well, follows the rules, and wins most of the time. If you lose, instead of whining, trying to change the rules, or threatening to take your bat and ball and go home (or, move out of state), work harder to try to win next time.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz
13 years ago

Unfortunately, though, some games aren’t games but a matter of survival, and those seem prone to unfair rules that need to be changed.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
13 years ago

Walsh and his chorts fix the game and then admonish others to try harder.
it’s like getting a lecture on ethics from a three card monte dealer.

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