Can Winning be a part of Player Development?

barcaYes!  It has to because soccer is a competitive sport.  When I say “competitive” I mean at the end of the match, there is a usually a winner and a loser.  This topic has intrigued me for a while.  At the same time, there are several sources that I have quoted here that have stated that our emphasis in youth games is a detriment to development.  The problem is that if you take an 8 year old with a team of 8 year olds, if you emphasize winning you will do things as a coach that neutralizes development.  It could include position specialization.  It could include too much emphasis on tactics.  Too much pressure on results leads to less experimentation, creativity, allowances for mistakes, etc.  As I was reading Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, by Graham Hunter, he includes some information about the concept of quality competition in development that is interesting.  In Chapter 9, Breeding Ground, he includes quotes from Xavi and others directly on point.

Pep Guardiola states in Albert Puig’s (Technical Secretary of the Youth Program at Camp Nou) book La Fuerza de Un Sueno,

Winning is not incompatible with a good early  training. On the contrary, good early training means that youngsters develop into players who win, but who win the right way.  They respect their opponents, behave at all times as representatives of the club, accept that there is someone in charge, have tactical discipline and work hard at training. That is the way to win. (Hunter, 342)

Sometimes in our “player development model” we forget that soccer is a competition – the ultimate objective is to win.  We need to make sure, in our effort to stem the tide of over-coaching at young ages that we do not swap sides of the continuum — kids need to understand that their objective, however they are placed, is to win.  Xavi stated:

Before you become a professional you need to learn and develop, but without losing your competitive edge. In Barca, we all understand that. Development is a priority. The young lads learn footballing concepts and understand why we do things in a certain way whilst maintaining their competitive spirit, their desire to win.  It’s good to express anger you feel when you lose. In the futbol base the priority is training and development, but the objective is to win. (with emphasis)(Hunter, p. 342)

So, how can we structure academies and the like to reconcile development with winning?  To be sure, players need to be challenged at their level to grow.  Last Spring, we resolved this problem with a small group of U10 academy boys by removing all teams but still having games every saturday.  Each game was on an official field, with an official refereeing.  Uniforms were worn.  Each Saturday, the small group of boys reported to their field to play a game — they played against the same small group of kids each week — these were kids within a small development grouping so the balance on the field was always good.  But, they had different teammates each week.  The reason we opted for this method was that the boys that were in the Academy were more advanced than the players their age in the area.   Having them play each other each week solved the problem of ability-based competition.  At the end of each game, there was a winning team and a losing team.  The boys knew that.  The competition during the game was intense.

At the same time, no standings were kept.  Since we had no defined teams, standings would have been meaningless and administratively infeasible.  In other words, we preserved all aspects of a competitive game:  the field, the uniforms, the teams, the referee, the length of the game.  The only thing we tossed was standings.  Was this a success?  To me, it was a tremendous success and a great deal for the boys.  In the prior fall, they had to play up into a level above them, at a competitive level (Division 2).  Even then, they won the bracket but regularly were playing boys older and bigger than them.  In this Spring Academy, they were able to compete against people at their age AND ability.  And, since we only had 12-14 boys each week, we played 6v6 which meant a smaller field and more ball touches — another plus for the boys.

How did the parents receive this?  I must say, at first there were some questions.   Over time, I would like to think that the parents appreciated what we were doing and the benefits of it.   The atmosphere of the game, while competitive, was also congenial.  The parents were all excited for the success of any of the boys, even if the player was against them on the day.  That was another plus.

Soccer is a competitive sport.  While we need to focus on development in the early ages, it is important that the players still realize that soccer is a competition — one in which there will be a winner and a loser (usually).  To highlight the balance, Hunter provides this great quote from Mazinho, Brazilian world champion and father of Thiago and Rafinha.  The boys’ 5 a side coach routinely told them that the most important thing they did was “to participate.”  He corrected the coach:  “You are mistaken. The most important thing for any of them to do is to compete.”  (with emphasis)(Hunter, 344).   You can structure opportunities to compete while allowing for player growth.

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