Currently there’s (still) a debate going on in youth football circles about the role of winning in youth sports development programs. More specifically is one a good youth coach if one wins youth matches? In answering this question and looking at this debate, probably the most important thing to start off is realizing what the aim of a youth academy is. Why does a youth academy exist? What is the point of all youth academies? Finding it difficult to answer these questions? Try this one, why do we bring our kids to school?
The reason we have youth academies and schools is because we want to develop our children. When are we successful in developing our children? In school we’re successful when children graduate, in a domain they prefer which suits their qualities and passion. In football? We’re successful when children become professional football players, and achieve their dream! Hence a good youth academy in football is one where there’s a continuous flow of players entering the professional football domain, I reckon.
Well, what is the role of winning in developing our young football players? Football is a game, and games are there to be won. There’s no discussion. However in youth football a challenge exists concerning winning. Situations will emerge in which a delicate choice has to be made by the coach. For example, put yourself in the coach’s shoes, your team made it to the final of a tournament. Do you only play with your best players (to have a greater chance of winning the tournament: focus on winning) or do you play every player (to have them gain experience: focus on development)? This is an intensely delicate challenge, and more challenges like these, bigger but mostly smaller, have to be faced whilst coaching.
In choosing winning, it doesn’t mean you’re not concerned with developing children. However winning or losing is more important than developing every player to you. In choosing development, it doesn’t mean you’re not concerned with winning. However the development of all children is more important than winning or losing to you. Because a youth academy’s aim is to develop youth players into professional football players and it’s difficult if not impossible to foresee which player will become a professional football player I’d choose to develop all my players. What do experts and science tell us?
Results and potential
Rasmus Ankersen has visited the so called gold mines around the world, like Bekoji (Ethiopia) where Tirunesh Dibaba, Tiki Gelana, and Kenenisa Bekele come from. In visiting these gold mines he found that some talents ‘shout’ and others ‘whisper’. A shouting talent is one who has both potential (to become very good) and the ability to already win tournaments. A whispering talent is one who also has the potential, but is not so far in his/her development to win tournaments. The defining factor of a talent is thus not if he or she wins matches, tournaments or is the best at a very young age. The defining factor of a talent is that he or she has the potential to ultimately win matches, tournaments and be the best. This is in line with research from Ostojic et al. (2014) on early and late bloomers in (Serbian) football. They found that late bloomers in professional youth academies are almost 6 times more likely to reach elite adult level than early bloomers. One possible explanation: coaches confuse early bloomers superiority with talent. Ostojic et al. (2014) stated: ‘it seems that early supremacy in youth soccer is not a predictor of later succes’.
Match: give your utmost
Bastiaan Riemersma, head of academy at Willem II (Dutch Eredivisie club), hit the spot on the role of winning in developing young children. He drew a metaphor: ‘a horse can run fast on it’s own, but there’s no need. If it has to run against other horses in a race it will be pushed to run even faster, it has to give it’s everything.’ So in a football match we should be thankful for the opponent because they force our children to give their utmost. Children want to win, and that’s perfect. They opponents compel our children to discover and push their own boundaries. Concerning development that is a good thing. Development is about learning what has not yet been acquired. Development is about pushing boundaries. What does the result of a match tell us then? It only tells us which team was better that specific day. Does it give us insight in who will develop into a professional football player later on? Not so much. In analyzing Ajax’s U19 team versus FC Barcelona’s U19 for the UEFA Youth League a couple of years back Johan Cruyff focussed on the way the team played and mentioned the score as a side thing, of lesser importance. After analyzing he said: ‘And they’re winning as well. Although, the score is always of second interest.’ Ton Boot, a former Dutch basketball coach who won several national championships with his adult teams, said: ‘winning isn’t something you talk about, it’s something you just do.’
Consequences of focus on winning and on development
In 2014 O’Rourke, Smith, Smoll, & Cumming did research on the motivational climate created by coaches and parents and their effects on young swimmers’ (9-14 years old) self-esteem, match anxiety, and intrinsic motivation. Does it make a difference if a coach/parent puts an emphasis on winning (ego climate) or if a coach/parent puts an emphasis on learning (mastery climate)? It does! In a climate with an emphasis on winning, the young swimmers have lower self-esteem, and intrinsic motivation, but a higher match anxiety. Whilst young swimmers in a learning climate have lower match anxiety and higher self-esteem and intrinsic motivation. Jaakkola, Ntoumanix, Liukkonen (2016) found that a mastery climate (emphasizing effort, personal development and achievement goal mastering tasks) leads to a higher enjoyment in junior ice hockey (mean age = 17). The findings of Cumming, Smoll, Smith, Grossbard (2007) tell us something about the athlete’s attitude towards a coach in young basketball players (aged 10-15). The athlete’s attitude towards a coach is positively associated with mastery climate, and negatively associated with an ego climate. No differences between mastery and ego climate and winning have been found.
These findings were confirmed in my experience. For two consecutive years I had coached a team of young football players in the U9 and U10’s. Let’s call this team: Team A. With the staff we created a mastery climate and our boys used to play against several other teams, including regularly matches against team B in those two years. After two years I left team A to coach an other young team, team B. The boys from Team A got another coach, and with him also another motivational climate: one focussed on winning. Three months after the motivational climate had changed for my boys in team A we had to play them with my new team B. After the match one of the boys in team B told me the following. ‘Coach, I could tell you do not coach team A any more. When we used to play them with you as their coach they kept working hard and helped each other on the pitch no matter what. Today when we scored a few goals they became angry with each other and gave up. Today was an easy game for us.’
To conclude, developing children starts with the goal of the academy. What is valued best: winning youth games or developing children? One doesn’t rule the other out, though it has different consequences for your children and their development (chances). I firmly believe that a focus on development from the coach, instead of a focus on winning, will lead to more professional football players. Therefore one is a good youth coach, in my opinion, if one is able to develop all of his or her players. Because development will lead to results, but results not necessarily to development.