The Role of Winning in Youth Sports
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Part of your coaches' education program should involve a direct discussion of the
importance of winning to a successful program. This important topic traditionally has been
filled with cliches. At one extreme is the belief that winning is unimportant in youth sports; at
the other extreme is the belief that winning is the only thing. A healthy perspective is
probably somewhere between these two beliefs. The importance of winning has been
considered by virtually every adult involved in youth sports. Unfortunately, glib cliches may
interfere with a thoughtful consideration of the problem. Clearly, there can be too much
emphasis on winning; however, those who advocate the position that winning is not
important often miss the point that without an attempt to win the contest, the activity is no
longer sport. The essence of sport is striving to win; without that attempt, the activity is of a
different nature. For example, if two athletes of dramatically different skill levels are playing
tennis, often the superior athlete will begin to teach the less skilled athlete.

While admirable, teaching is not sport. Two individuals on a golf course who are more
interested in being together as friends change the situation from competitive sport to a
social interaction. Coaches should realize that while winning is an essential part of sport,
youth sports has many other, complementary goals. A key point is to acknowledge that
while winning is an important part of sport, it must be kept in perspective with the other
valuable aspects of youth sports such as social development, fun, fitness, etc.

Below are a few points which might be considered in a discussion of the importance of
winning in youth sports.

1. Winning Builds Confidence.
The old cliche that "Show me a loser and I'll show you a loser" is often cited here. Winning
does build confidence especially when that winning represents a true accomplishment; (i.e.,
I've beaten a worthy opponent). However, winning against other teams or individuals of
much lower skill levels normally does little to bolster self-confidence.

2. Winning gains one access to rewards and special privileges.
Clearly winners and highly skilled athletes often get better fields, more recognition, greater
prestige, more fans, more rewards,trophies and ribbons, and perhaps even local TV and
media coverage. Denial of this phenomenon does little to keep winning in a healthy
perspective. However, in youth sports programs the adult leadership must continually be
watchful that the younger, less skilled, and less experienced athletes are not denied fair
access to the opportunity to learn and participate as a result of this differential focus on
winners.

3. Winning increases in importance as kids get older.
Won-Loss records prior to the age of puberty have little effect on the respect and regard
that kids have for their youth sport coaches. Prior to the age of 12 years, research clearly
shows that 75% of the youngsters would prefer to play for a losing team than sit on the
bench of a winning team. However, during the teenage years, won-loss accomplishments
do, in fact, influence the respect which a young athlete has for his or her coach. Coaches
should realize that athletes of different ages react different to winning and losing. Such
facts emphasize the importance that coaches of younger athletes should not merely mimic
the behavior of successful coaches of older youngsters.

4. Winning builds espirit de corps, cohesion and team spirit.
The research has not yet established if winning fosters team spirit or if team spirit fosters
winning. Intra-squad competition often produces better performance with lowered levels of
team spirit. That is, "winning" a spot on the starting line-up at the expense of a teammate
may create more turmoil within the team if fairness and equal opportunity are not perceived
by the majority of team members.

5. Winning increases motivation.
While this statement may seem self-evident, research findings point out situations where
winning can be quite demotivating. For example, when the probability of success (i.e.,
winning) is very high the contest often lacks the excitement and vigor of a more closely
contested match. A perceived probability of success of approximately 0.50 has been shown
to produce higher levels of sustained excitement and motivation than higher or lower
probabilities of success.

6. Winning becomes a more appropriate goal if the definitions of winning are
broadened.
For example, winning can be defined as self-improvement and/or as goal attainment.
Improving on one's previous performance or attaining previously set goals can be
interpreted as success in a sports setting where, by definition, there are only a few winners
(i.e., first places). If sport is to be viewed as beneficial for our children, it must benefit the
majority of participants in a meaningful way rather than be limited to the elite few who
ultimately win the actual contest.

7. Winners are those who handle failure better.
There is often the belief that all those who are successful were successful throughout their
careers. Actually, champions are often those who coped with their difficulties, set-backs, or
losses better than their opponents. A .300 hitter in baseball is out 7/10 times at bat. The
difference between a good .300 hitter and a mediocre .250 hitter is 1 more hit in every
twenty times at bat.

8. Winning does not ensure the quality of the performance.
One can perform well and still finish second; conversely one can perform poorly yet still win
because the opponent also failed to perform well. Mastery programs where the athletes are
asked to meet a minimum level of performance often produce higher levels of performance
than do competitive programs.

9. Winning in youth sports is relative to whom you play.
That is, winning often depends more upon who does the scheduling than the performance
level of the athletes. If a team is scheduled only against inferior opponents, the team's
won-loss record will be good but the accomplishment is clearly devalued. Relative skill
levels is a crucial factor in sport at all levels.

10. A crucial ingredient in youth sports is HOW YOU WIN as opposed to whether
you win.
Winning within the boundaries of the rules and ethics of sportsmanship can place a great
premium on winning without distorting the basic sporting values which many would like to
see our children learn. In fact, a strong argument can be made for the fact that true
sportsmanship cannot exist unless there is an honest desire to win. Playing fairly when one
has no concern about the outcome of the game is not the same level of ethics as playing
fairly when one wants strongly to win.

11. Winning in youth sports programs is most influenced by the athlete's state of
physiological maturity.
Physical maturity is more important than coaching, individual effort, equipment or any other
normally valued aspect of sport. "Clean-up batters" in the Little League World
Championships (a contest for 12 year olds and under) have consistently found to be
postpubescent in terms of physical maturity. Coaches often are given credit for an
outstanding season when, in fact, they simply have had the more physically gifted or
physically mature young athletes.

12. Winning is evidenced in achievement However, successful youth sports
coaches reinforce participation effort and achievement, in that order.
As a young athlete's age, maturity and experience develop, successful coaches shift their
emphasis from simply encouraging participation to praising putting forth one's best effort.
As age, maturity and experience factor continue to develop, the coach's emphasis shifts
again toward praising mastering skills, performing well and winning contests.

These topics about the importance of winning are not meant to be all inclusive. Each of the
topics is touched on only briefly. Hopefully, these concepts stimulate discussions of the
importance of winning in youth sports that avoid cliches and stereotypes. Cliches such as,
"It's all for the kids"' while well-meaning, fail to address many of the actual issues in youth
sports and, thus, prevent us from designing effective programs. Effective youth sports
programs establish the young athletes' needs as priority without ignoring the many
motivations of parents, coaches, and officials who make these programs work.
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