They just scored to take a 1-0 lead late in the second half. I know exactly why they scored, I saw it coming before they scored, and I know that they are likely going to continue to threaten our goal for the next 5 minutes for the same reason. I refuse to fix the issue the easy way. Two minutes later the score is 2-0. My players’ fighting spirit has been broken. A minute later it is 3-0, and 2 minutes after that the game is over. We got blown out by a team we are equal to in every aspect of the game. What a great teaching opportunity.
This is the exact scenario I faced recently with my U-9 boys team. Even before we went down 1-0 I could see that one of my less athletic players was mismatched against a player who was not lacking in any aspect of the game. Sitting on the bench at that moment I had one player capable of stopping this future Messi, and playing in one of the wide positions already on the field I had another equally capable player. But it was my less athletic player’s turn to play in that position.
Now, I do not like losing, as a matter of fact I despise it. But I gladly took this loss because it was the right thing to do. We as coaches are supposed to teach the players to love the game, and while I do not suggest you go out every week and try to lose, it is a fact that losing is a part of the very game we are teaching our players to love. It is not easy to take a loss when a solution is within reach, but it serves the players the best when it is done.
Below, we offer some tips on how to stay true to the focus on development when our competitive juices get flowing, because it is really easy to fall into the trap of playing for a result. No, you are not a bad person if you want to coach to a win, and yes, it is easier to teach a kid to love a sport when winning is involved. But, if we hold true to the principle of coaching to develop young players’ skills and love for the game, rather than coaching to win games, the results will take care of themselves.
1. Set the example
Your players are going to show up to the game wanting a win. There is nothing wrong with that, as a matter of fact it is great. Telling them, “It’s not about winning or losing” will likely just go over their heads, because to them it is quite a bit about that. But stating it differently, “I do not care what the score is” or “We will play the same way regardless of the score,” will help them focus on doing the right thing without diminishing their natural instinct to want to win.
2. Set clear objectives
Before the team starts to warm up, and again immediately before the game starts, set clear objectives of what you want to see your team accomplish during the game. For the youngest players (U4-U6) set one objective. For example, “Keep the ball in-bounds.” Every time a player accomplishes that objective, even if the ball is kept in-bounds right in front of your own net and the other team scores because of it, congratulate your player for accomplishing the objective. For a little bit older players (U7-U9) two objectives may be appropriate. For example, “Send the ball wide as soon as we win it,” and “Stay in your position when we are on defense.” For more competitive age groups (U10-U12) you may want to add a third objective such as, “Switch the point of attack.”
3. Set a plan for equal minutes and roles
If you are anything like me, you will be tempted during the games to keep your more skillful players on the field a minute or two longer than those players who need a little more time to achieve the same level of skill and ability. Before you even go out to the field, set a plan for yourself that will ensure two things: one, each player spends about the same amount of time on the field as any other player during a game; and two, each player spends the time allotted to them in different positions (up front, back on defense, in the middle, on the side, etc.) Don’t worry, your preconceived plan will fail. Players will not show up, either on time or at all, they will get hurt, or they will have to leave early. But if you can stick to the intent of your plan, regardless of the situation on the field, you will have done your job.
Now, let me bring you back to the 3-0 blowout we suffered, because the best part of it came in those last 2 minutes of the game, the part where we as youth coaches know that we have done our job. In those last 2 minutes of the game, when we are down 3-0 and one kid is wreaking havoc on our overmatched defense, my less athletic player stopped the wiz kid twice from scoring more goals in one-on-one situations. He improved, and along with the rest of the players enjoyed an after-game snack and already started talking about seeing one another at practice in a few days.