Hey Coach... are we allowed to win?

I'm coaching my daughters in a U12 soccer league this Spring. It's a big step up from the kids' leagues they've played in before. Bigger fields. Full size goals. Playing teams from other cities. And get this craziness… they actually let you try to win! Seriously… they don't even mind if you keep score! What a radical concept, right?

Coaching kids sportsIf you've been involved in youth sports these days, you know what I'm talking about. For some reason today's sports leagues for young kids are convinced that we are going to traumatize our children if ever they lose a game. Coaches are instructed to never focus on the score and everyone, literally everyone, gets a trophy at the end of the season so no one has hurt feelings. I think they even give the referees a trophy just to be safe.

I guess the big justification here is the old phrase "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." And while there is truth in that statement - that there are moral laws and character values that supersede the value of winning alone - it seems that when people say this phrase what they really means is "Don't worry about whether you win or lose, just worry about being a nice person while you play the game." And I think that interpretation is way off.

I was listening to a talk the other day by a friend of mine, Dustin Swinehart, a former pro soccer player. He made two interesting points that stuck out to me. The first was that after playing thousands of games over his career… the one thing that irked him the most is when he'd play against an opponent that didn't want to win or was just going half-speed. It just felt like a huge waste of time to him. The other thing he said was that some of the greatest lessons he ever learned from sports… came from horrible losses.

It got me thinking. Sports provides a great opportunity to teach and exhibit character. And character growth always comes through struggle. The great thing about sports is you can put someone in a difficult/pressure situation and give them an opportunity to grow… without the fear of any real danger. It can be incredibly intense and then it's over and you grab a Gatorade and go home.

So back to that phrase. I do actually think that the important thing is how you play the game. But here's the deal… one crucial aspect to "how you play the game" involves the intense unrelenting determination to TRY TO WIN THE GAME. Without that, the whole structure of the game breaks down and any potential to learn is terribly diminished.

Now that doesn't mean that when I play my 8-year-old son in basketball, I block every one of his shots (although I have to admit that I often want to). Obviously, in that situation what I am really doing is a form of coaching… playing against him and trying to help him improve. But if I am playing an actual game against peers, I owe it to myself and to the other team to play with honestly and integrity, yes… but also with an absolute all-out effort to win. I think we are doing our kids a great disservice when we fail to emphasize that.