In Canadian soccer at present...short term aims of “winning” a weekend youth match are given more importance than long-term gains in player performance and satisfaction that will translate into greater levels of excellence and lifelong wellness.
-- Wellness to World Cup (Canadian Soccer Association)
A youth soccer coach once said to me “I never encourage my girls to play out of the back.” When I asked why, he said “Because they’re not good enough and they’ll get scored on.” I remember thinking to myself - that’s like an English teacher saying “I don’t want my students to write essays because their grammar is poor.”
Everyone likes to win. There’s no question that winning makes us feel good and makes us feel successful. But at what point does the pursuit of winning adversely affect our primary objective, which is to develop young players? There’s little doubt that this issue is affecting the soccer development of so many girls in our system. Too often we feel that winning is somehow synonymous with development. The notion goes something like this: “If my daughter’s team is winning, it must mean that she’s becoming a better player.” It could certainly be that your daughter is on a winning team and that she’s becoming a better player at the same time. However, the reason she’s becoming a better player is not necessarily because her team is winning.
There are many arguments to be made that the blind pursuit of winning is obstructing the development and creativity of young soccer players. For example, a team could learn to constantly lump the ball up to the fastest player on the pitch and subsequently win a good deal of games. Everyone would feel good about winning but no one (besides perhaps the goal scorer) is developing their abilities or their understanding of the game.
I’ve always argued that there’s no biological reason why the girls game can’t be skillful and intelligent. No, it will never be as fast and as physical as the boys game but there’s no reason why it can’t be pleasurable to watch. The unfortunate reality is that the majority of girls soccer games are simply painful to watch. There’s an enormous lack of skill that’s evident in the girls game and I would argue that the winning-at-all-cost approach is one of the main contributing factors to this deficiency. There's so much emphasis placed on winning that girls soccer matches scarcely resemble anything like the actual game. Watch the English Premier League on Saturday morning and you will wonder whether this is, in fact, the same game that we've grown accustom to watching on our local soccer fields. That's not to say that girls are expected to play with the same ability as the best in the world, but the game must at least aspire to resemble that game. Sadly, it does not. I wish that I could say things change as the girls become women but often it does not. I remember watching a high level women’s game last fall. The team that won only managed to pass the ball 3 times in a row on 4 occasions in the entire second half. Like so many girls games, it was simply a battle of athleticism. The tactic is nothing more than "we'll pound the ball forward into your end and you'll pound the ball forward into our end and hopefully we'll make fewer mistakes that you."
"When we learn anything new, we need to understand and accept that failure is a necessary part of that learning. I don’t think any of us would have had much success riding a bicycle as a child if we were intolerant to the possibility of falling down."
THE NEED TO EMBRACE FAILURE
When we learn anything new, we need to understand and accept that failure is a necessary part of that learning. I don’t think any of us would have had much success riding a bicycle as a child if we were intolerant to the possibility of falling down. When I watch girls soccer games in the community, I see so few players who will pass back to their goalkeeper, or play passes out of the back. Very few will dribble when there’s no one to pass to, or take players on 1v1 in the attacking third of the field. The name of the game is risk aversion. This is not a criticism of the girls themselves. They’re simply doing what’s expected of them from both their coaching staff and their parents. The girls are not encouraged to be creative or to take risks because that will certainly result in more mistakes and more mistakes may result in more lost games. The girls understand that what is ultimately expected of them is to win. Yes, there are lots of platitudes expressed about the emphasis on “development” and how the team focusses on “possession” soccer. These are motherhood statements that everyone feels the need to say. The reality is that all these principles take a back seat to winning.
So what is the result of this approach? For one, girls soccer - even at the high levels - more resembles a pin ball game than soccer as the ball constantly turns over. Some games even resemble rugby matches where the emphasis is all on physical battles and winning loose balls. I’m always amazed when I see a girl whack the ball down the field into a crowd of players and the coach criticizes the girl in that crowd for not fighting hard enough to win the ball. There’s scarcely criticism of the girl who whacked the aimless ball in the first place.
More importantly, many of the players are simply not getting better in that environment. It could be argued that the girls are learning to compete. I’ll concede that point. But very few are developing their technical ball skills or their decision-making ability. What’s more troubling is that many girls simply look scared. I regularly see young girls come off the field crying because they’ve made a mistake or the game was lost. Is this an environment in which players will develop their creativity and their love of the game? I struggle to see how that can be.
Often at TSS Academy, players and parents express to me how their academy team experience changed their appreciation of the game. Even older girls say how they discovered an appreciation for how the game is supposed to be played, with fluidity, skill, and intelligence. You can’t get to that place overnight. It takes lots of training, a good deal of mistakes and yes, many lost games. But in the end, the winning eventually starts to take place, but it’s winning as a result of better player development and ultimately better soccer.
I can also say categorically that, after having helped numerous female players get recruited to college through the academy, college coaches could care less whether a player’s youth team won x number of games. At the end of the day, a college coach wants to see first-hand that a potential recruit can play, that she has skill, and that she can make a positive contribution to their college team. End of story.
WINNING VS COMPETING
Of course, it’s important to distinguish between winning and competing. There are those who would argue that removing the “winning” component in girls soccer would adversely affect a young player’s ability to compete. There’s no question that possessing the “desire” to win helps us compete as players, it helps us push ourselves, and ultimately helps our development. However, removing the emphasis on winning is not about removing the emphasis on competing. Teaching young girls to compete is vital but that competition does not solely take place through the scoreline. There are numerous competitions that take place all over the field throughout the game - primarily in the form of 1v1 battles or the challenge of executing components of the game. It’s not about removing the “desire” to win, it’s about removing the short-term “strategy” to win, particularly when that strategy obstructs the skill development of girls in the game.
There is perhaps no greater victim of this win-at-all-cost approach than the young defender. The young defender is often taught to be the most risk adverse of all the players. She’s encouraged to simply defend the entire game whether her team is in possession or not. She’s told to fire the ball up the field whenever the ball comes into her vicinity. No short passes, no passes back to the keeper, and definitely no dribbling. I often joke that many young defenders are in two constant states - they’re either defending or waiting-to-defend. The girl who excels at this job is praised by the coaching staff and is rarely taken off the field. Her parents are led to believe that she’s one of the star players and that she’s developing her game. The disillusionment comes years later when this player tries out for higher level teams. These players are rarely selected to the elite teams because they simply don’t possess the technical ball skills. Take a look at most provincial teams or college teams. Ask the defenders if they played in those positions as kids. Most will say “no.” They were midfielders or strikers who were converted to defenders. It happens all the time. Sadly, the development of the young defender is often sacrificed in order to secure a winning record at the youth level.
"The young defender is often taught to be the most risk adverse of all the players. She’s encouraged to simply defend the entire game whether her team is in possession or not. She’s told to fire the ball up the field whenever the ball comes into her vicinity."
COACH OR INSTRUCTOR
I don’t want to throw youth coaches under the bus because our soccer system is made possible by so many coaches who dedicate countless hours to this game. That being said, there’s little question that this type of winning-at-all-cost approach is being orchestrated by youth coaches (primarily men I would add). But are these coaches approaching the game this way because of our flawed understanding of the role of the youth soccer coach? Do they feel the judgements of the parents and the soccer community as their win-loss record is scrutinized? There is unquestionably a certain type of thinking that pervades the mind of the coach: “If my team is winning, it means that I’m a good coach or, more importantly, that others will perceive me as a good coach.” The first part of that thinking is simply untrue whereas the second part is certainly true.
As someone who spent years in the communication industry, I’ve often argued that the words we choose matter, which is why I feel that the word “coach” is the wrong word to use. Alex Ferguson, who manages Manchester United, is a coach. Alain Vigneault of the Vancouver Canucks is a coach. Both these men have a very specific job - to take the players they’ve acquired and get them to win. Their success as coaches is almost exclusively defined by how many games they win. Because youth soccer coaches are also called “coaches,” we mistakenly believe that our success is measured by the same stick. But surely most of us can agree that the primary role of the youth coach (whether soccer or otherwise) is to teach. So why are we called “coach”? Maybe we should be called “instructors.” If we were called instructors then maybe our entire understanding of the job description would change. My 7 -year-old son is currently learning how to swim. He gets taught by a swimming instructor - not a coach. Sometimes when we choose different words, it changes our whole notion of something. If youth soccer coaches were called “instructors,” maybe we could finally start measuring our success based on how individual players are improving their skills and their game understanding - irrespective of the scoreline. We could even measure our success based on whether players are developing a love of the game. Perhaps when that day comes, I will be able to watch a girls soccer game in the park and enjoy the experience.
Brendan Quarry is the co-owner of TSS Football Club and Total Soccer. He has coached on the female side of the game for the last 20 years and helped countless players progress to the collegiate level.