A friend of mine posted a question on Facebook today, asking:
“Parents – do you agree with the policy that has been in place in the UK for a few years now that children should not experience losing? We don’t have tournaments anymore, we have festivals where everyone is a winner […]” – Facebook post
Firstly, I would disagree with the premise. Our primary school-aged rugby players are experiencing winning and losing games all the time. Every game we coach in rugby is competitive and the kids are trying to beat one another. The same happens in the playground. There is no shortage of winning and losing.
However, we need to understand that it’s not actually the winning that’s most important to them: it’s having fun and playing with their friends. The winning and losing is just part of the mechanics of games and it’s required to create the tension and the fun, and to give the activity a focus.
So, if the children are winning and losing games, what’s all this you hear about “not focusing on winning”?
Well, primarily it’s just that as youth coaches we need to remember that player development is really our main focus, not winning games.
Okay, so if the children are happily experiencing competition, then what’s the reason for changing competition rules?
To understand this, we need to make a distinction between the competition of winning or losing a game, and that of formal competition frameworks.
Formal competitive frameworks like knock-out tournaments and leagues are problematic during the primary school years. For a start, the younger children don’t yet have the ability to understand the concept of knockout competitions, nor do they have the emotional tools to be able to process the disappointment when they lose for reasons they don’t understand. They just feel it is unfair and they lose interest in the activity. Our main purpose in grass roots sports is to engage children, to make it fun, and as a result to keep them in the sport longer. This benefits the children’s development and their health, and it also benefits the sport.
If we do our job well, and make it fun for them in the primary school years, they’ll hopefully still be around playing the sport in secondary school, and they will have plenty of opportunity to experience winning tournament cups or leagues, and they’ll be mature enough to learn life lessons from it and to enjoy it.
Another very important reason for avoiding formal competition in the primary school years is less about the children themselves and more about the adults involved in the sport. While coaches and parents almost always have the best of intentions, formal competition usually brings out the worst in them.
To win the trophy, coaches become tempted to field their best players, leaving the others on the bench, which is obviously not good for their development. Given that the developmental ages of children in the same year can differ by up to four years, this kind of early selection, gives the early developers an unfair advantage over their peers, who in the best case will just be under-developed, and in the worst case, will leave the sport prematurely; children who might even have been the best in their cohort come secondary school, if they had been given an equal opportunity when younger.
Another harmful effect of the “winning fever” engendered by formal competition frameworks is the consequent pressure that coaches and parents put on young children, often unwittingly. This pressure comes naturally to us, and we tend to treat children as just small versions of ourselves. But they are not. This pressure to perform can take all the enjoyment out of the game and lead to children leaving the sport. For parents, in its mildest form, this pressure can be as simple as always asking the child about whether they think can win their next match. Most commonly it manifests itself as ugly shouting from the side lines, either at the child, the other players or, quite often, the referee. In its most severe form it can even involve psychological or even physical abuse when the child doesn’t achieve an outcome expected by the adult.
Finally, “winning fever” also has an insidious effect on coaching: as game outcomes become more and more important to coaches, their coaching tends to focus more on quick wins than long-term development. When coaching young children, it’s a slow process and it can sometimes take years to bear fruit. If your primary goal is to win this weekend, you are less likely to stay the course and keep focusing on those long-term goals.
For these reasons, I welcome the changes made to the competitive structure in our sport over the last five years. I’m a big fan of the new festival rules, which are just a series of competitive games that can each be won or lost; avoiding teams from being knocked out and sent home early (fat lot of use that is for their sporting development!) and avoiding the selection of an overall winner, which confuses younger children and brings out the worst in their parents and coaches.
Our young children are not being protected from losing – they are being protected from the negative behaviour of adults who are focused on winning.