Are we protecting children from losing?

A friend of mine posted a question on Facebook a few days ago, 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

It’s a fair question, which I don’t blame parents for asking because back in their day they were probably coached or educated quite differently. What I’d like to do is to answer this question from my perspective of coaching primary school-aged children (up to 11 years old) in the game of rugby, although I’m sure it applies broadly to many sports.

They ARE experiencing winning and losing.

To begin with, I would disagree with the premise of the question. Our primary school-aged rugby players are experiencing winning and losing. 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.

So why shouldn’t we focus on winning?

If the children are winning and losing games all the time, why are we told not to focus on winning (and therefore losing)? A focus on winning doesn’t make sense, as there are two even more important goals:

  1. As youth coaches, our primary purpose is developing the child. Focusing on winning detracts from this.
  2. We also need to understand that it’s not actually the winning that’s most important to children: it’s having fun and playing with their friends. The winning and losing is just part of the mechanics of games in general: it’s required to create the tension and the fun, but it’s not the main reason that the children are playing. If winning and losing is most important to coaches, then we already at odds with the children before we’ve even started.

Okay. But if the children are happily having fun with their friends, playing competitive games then what’s the reason for changing competition rules?

Formal Competition

Here we need to make a distinction between the competition of winning or losing a game, and that of formal competition frameworks like knock-out tournaments and leagues, which are problematic during the primary school years.

It Can Switch Them Off

Young children don’t yet have the ability to understand the concept of things like knockout competitions, nor do they have the emotional tools to be able to process their disappointment when they lose for reasons they don’t understand. They just feel it is unfair and they lose interest in the activity. This runs counter to our main purpose in grass roots sports, which is to engage children, make it fun, and keep them in the sport longer, to the benefit of their development and health, and also to the benefit of 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 enjoy it and to learn life lessons from it.

Some other important reasons for avoiding formal competition in the primary school years are less about the children themselves and more about the adults involved in the sport.

The Adults Get Caught Up in It

While coaches and parents almost always have the best of intentions, formal competition usually brings out the worst in them.

Favouring Certain Players to Get the Win

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, had they been given an equal opportunity when younger.

The Pressure on Children

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 adults, and we tend to treat children as just small versions of ourselves. But they are not.

For parents, in its very mildest form, this pressure can be as simple as always asking the child about whether they won their last match, or are going to win their next one; sending the message that winning is important to the adult. Most commonly, the pressure 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 involve psychological abuse when the child doesn’t achieve an outcome expected by the adult.

The pressure to perform and the associated negativity can take all the enjoyment out of the game and is a major reason for children quitting it altogether.

Coaching Suffers

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.

For example, research shows that children shouldn’t specialise in a particular rugby position until their teenage years. Early specialisation means that they are missing out on a vital opportunity to develop a more rounded skill set, which actually reduces performance ability later on. A coach more focused on winning than long-term development might decide, for example, that a good strategy is to give the “chunkiest” child the ball so that they can “stuff it up their jumper”, and smash through the opposition. This approach might win some games, but at what cost? Is this child being given the best opportunity to develop key evasion, ball-handling and decision-making skills? And what about the rest of the team?

Coaching young children is a slow process. 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.

My Conclusion?

The changes made to the competitive structure in our sport over the last five years make a lot of sense. We should welcome 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. If we can get rid of this winning fever in the primary school years, we might just create the World Cup winners of the future.

Our young children are not being protected from losing – they are being protected from the negative behaviour of adults focused on winning.

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