What’s in Winning?

It is without question the most discussed subject in junior & youth coaching.  Winning vs development or long term potential vs. short term gain.  In every country, in every region, in every club around the globe coaches will provide their opinions; many of which are varied and complex.  This in itself presents a magnitude of barriers in our game and then just to add fuel to the fire more often than not the parents of the players in the team will throw in their opinions too.  Add all these into the melting pot and you’ve got opinions, thoughts and facts swirling around colliding and often meeting head to head.  Quite simply it’s a nightmare for a coach to deal with and it’s the biggest common problem in football.

The issue goes deeper than just what someone’s opinion is too, you have to take into account history (what has been done before or what worked in the past), you have to consider culture (the countries overall view on this matter) and mentality (what your head says compared to what your heart says).

Now I consider myself a youth development coach right now, I coach an International U17 Women’s Team so I’m lucky to be working with elite players but in my other job as Football Development Officer I go into clubs at grassroots level and help them develop their structures so I get to see a broad range of the game.  I also have aspirations to one day make it into the top professional leagues and into the ‘results business’ so this article is really my take, my perspective and opinion.  You may disagree with me, you may love what I have to say but either way the more discussion around this topic means the more coaches think, question and then re-evaluate.  That in itself is a good thing.

First of all before coaches start thinking I’m going to spout a load of ‘development’ jargon I do believe that winning is an important part of football.  It has to be when in simple teams, two teams compete in a match.  This match is either won, drawn or lost and so therefore the facts state winning is an key element in the game itself.  I do also believe that you can be a development coach, focused on developing players and still be able to win.  If you are sensible winning and development can go hand in hand.  The secret here is that winning doesn’t govern your philosophy or approach.  Winning should be the by product of what you produce not the focus on what you’re are producing.

There is also the matter of what I’m going to term the ‘half way house coach’.  This is the coach who says they are focused on development above winning and most of the time act in that way but when the pressure comes on they revert to taking an easy way out.  It is quite easy to become a half way house coach without noticing it.  I’ll share with you a story from a U10 coach I talked to recently who said he’d spent all his pre-season and first part of the season teaching kids to play out from the keeper, try and learn to pass the ball up the pitch and maintain possession (as best you can at 10).  The first 8 weeks they got beat every week by teams who would be more direct, play kick and chase football with a vocal parental support behind them.  After a few months a few of the parents in the team were asking questions “why don’t we play like that and win some games?” and  “is this really good for our boys getting beat each week?”; you get the picture.  At that point the coach could have quite easily become a half way house coach and for the sake of satisfying parents and the kids morale, reverted to a different way and maybe won a few games.  But he stuck to his guns, explained to the parents what he was trying to achieve and pursued with what they were doing.  Two weeks afterwards the team won a game playing some great football, the next week the scoreline was even better and now that team are winning games by big score lines and in fine style.  Now the winning bit is not what interests me, what I think is just fantastic is the coaches philosophy to stick to his guns and put the players long term development first over anything else.  When I asked him why he didn’t buckle his response was “well in 5 years who is going to remember what happens at U10s and if we win the league or not? nobody!”.  This coach deserves a medal in my opinion.

When I started with my national U17 squad 18 months ago, I did a presentation to all the players and parents at the first training camp we had.  In that presentation I outlined my philosophy and approach to winning.  I made it very clear that winning would not govern our approach with the group, we would try to develop players to become professionals or senior internationals.  That was the main priority not winning games but we would endeavor to win as many games as possible along the way if we could.  This is where a lot of confusion is created I believe, at the junction when coaches explain they are ‘developing players’.  Perception then becomes they don’t care about winning.  I can’t understand this..

Ask me would I rather win or lose a match at any level? I’d rather win.  Ask any player who understands, would you like to win or lose this game?  They will all reply ‘win’ with out any hesitation.  What is the question players ask their mates from other teams when they see them.  “How did you get on today?  Did you win?”  You very rarely hear coaches or players ask their peers “How did you play today?” before they find out the result.  And if they did ask then the reply is usually the result before the performance.  How often do you hear two coaches have this discussion in youth club football.. How did you play today? Yeah we were really great in possession, I was delighted..So improvement on last week?..Yeah very much so..Oh what was the score by the way?

My point here is that winning is innate, everyone wants to win.  Nobody goes onto the pitch to lose the game.  This in itself will provide players and teams with motivation, desire and passion.  You don’t have to convince players to want to win, they already do!

I can honestly tell you that in my previous 8 International matches in the last 18 months I have not once stood in front of my team and harped on about winning and how important it is we win the game, not even in world cup qualifying matches!  I don’t need to tell the players about winning, they all want to win whether it’s a training small sided game or an International World Cup qualifying game.  I see my job to give them the ‘development’ tools to produce performances worthy of ‘winning’ games by playing an attractive brand of football.

There is also another element coaches need to take into account, you can’t control if you win games or not.  You can’t control the opposition, you can influence them but not control them and so regardless of how good your team plays or performs, if the opposition are better, have better players or play better football you will more often than not lose the game.  There are anomalies to this, that is why football is the most loved game on the planet but stats will show you the majority of the time the best team wins and you can’t control if the opposition is better than you!  So my approach is to be the best you can be, if that is good enough to win then great, if not then hold your hands up, admit the opposition were better and do what you can to close the gap next time around.

I can control my team and their performances, so most of my attention goes on this and that in essence is developing the players to be the best footballers they can be in the future, giving them the tools to make it in modern day football and you are not going to make it if all you can do is kick and chase.  You don’t have to be a expert to see you have to be technically excellent, quick and be able make good decisions.  So what those players do throughout their footballing lifespan will determine how well they can achieve success later on.

So if you are a junior or youth coach and have a group of young players here are some simple facts for you to remember:

  • Nobody really cares or will remember if you win the league or not this season.  It’s nice but it doesn’t matter at all (sorry).
  • You have a moral obligation to help your players learn and develop so do it
  • What you do with your team will shape their future

So when does winning become more important than development?  I think the answer is pretty simple really. When it becomes a results business.  Development never stops of course, Leo Messi is still developing and getting better (scary isn’t it!) but he plays in a team where results are everything and so thats when coaches can put more focus on winning games than developing players.  Until that point coaches should be trying to develop players more than win games and tournaments.

What is the solution to the problem of coaches, parents and clubs adopting the opposite to a ‘development’ philosophy?  Well in all honesty is it ever going to completely change? Probably not.  Football is a game of opinions, thats what makes it great and interesting so there will always be difference in opinion.  Not everyone is the world is going to become ‘development’ coaches anytime soon but changes can be made for the better to help and create a new culture.  The more teams like Spain win world championships and european championships the better, they openly admit they don’t care about winning until the first team.  Jose Mourinho has famously said they (Spain) teach players the game not teach them to win, there is a difference!

So measure your success on ‘style of play’ what ever that may be, how many players stay in the game and how many players go onto a higher level rather than measured on how many games or trophies were won.  If you are strong in your belief in developing players then challenge people who think otherwise.  Be cleaver and creative in selling your message to players and parents.

In the big wide world of football, coaches (like my U10 coach I talked about earlier) are often missed or overlooked but if you can look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of how you coach young players than that is enough, you may not get the recognition you deserve but you are keeping the beautiful game beautiful, that matters and if you can inspire a group of young people to get better everyday then you are setting them up for life.  Now that is coaching and why it is great.


7 comments on “What’s in Winning?

  1. Brilliant writing, I coach an u8’s team moving into a competitive league next season as U9’s. Totally in tune with player development over results. Will look forward to more of your posts in the future.

  2. Excellent article Paul. You’ve highlighted the why’s and therefore’s brilliantly and addressed the usual questions that arise when a coach adopts a ‘be competitive’ as opposed to ‘win at all costs’ attitude. A lot of coaches of the be competitive camp will be reassured that they are doing it the right way!

  3. I entered two teams in an U6 competition last weekend. One team knocked out in Qtrs, the other lost the Final. Best part for me was…no tears. Told them at the outset of the day that it was all about expressing themselves in games, try to be clever. They did me proud. First time I’ve ever managed U6s to the latter stages of a comp and not had a few tears when knocked out, so I guess the scene I set, and the emphasis of the day were just about right. They did me proud. Generally my ‘parents’ ARE supportive, but of course there’s always the parent who thinks you should have done things differently. It’s important that you are not swayed from your personal philosophy.

  4. Spot On Paul I have been coaching at Grassroots & Development level for 10 years & fully endorse your comments. With the New Youth proposals & the great band of football coaches on Twitter, i hope we are starting to see the shift in player development over winning games. That will always be there & rightly so, in the professional game where players are paid to display their talents & if they don t , the manager gets the sack !!! (Normally the person encoraging them to develop) Ironic

  5. Fantastic article, couldn’t agree more. It makes me extremely happy to hear there are like-minded people out there. I am very much like the U10 coach you mentioned. I started off with a Saturday morning school to develop 3-8 year olds and as time went on, we had enough players for a team so we set up an U7s team. I remember their first game, with shorts and shirts twice as big as them. We got trounced 7-1, and the second, third and fourth. Games weren’t much better either. I do remember some parents questioning my development approach, but like your coach, I stuck to my guns and explained my approach to them.

    At the end of the second season, we finished second playing football they way it should be and making sure all players got enough minutes in different positions. I unfortunately had to leave England for a posting in the UAE but I know my development approach was successful because since leaving the UK in 2009, I have had parents of those players in contact to tell me their success stories, including one that has now made it into the Hampshire team of his age and another that’s doing well in Youth football in Canada.

    Nothing made me prouder than hearing these stories because it shows that I was right in sticking to my guns, even in those dreary winter days of 2007, and that parents would rather their child became a footballer than someone that won a few games when they were young.

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