Does playing without keeping score raise winners

Why are we even talking about result not being important for the youngest athletes and how can we raise winners that way?

Being a youth football coach for eight years now, I’ve met a lot of parents and coaches. Most of them still can’t figure out how disregarding result and focusing on enjoyment in a game, can really be useful for beginners when it comes to learning skills. Unfortunately, both parents and coaches misdirect their ambition and consequently children have less fun, learn less and drop out of sport more frequently.

Old fashioned view is that kids have to „toughen up“, they need to be shouted upon so they know who’s the boss and they have to acquire winners mentality for the beginning. There are no such things! If we’re talking about ball sports, a child devotes around ¾ of its attention capacity to the correct technical performance because it’s still being learned and is far from automated. Just for comparison, technically skilled grown player devotes just 5% of capacity to the technical performance, and uses most of the time to analyze defense and offense and choose appropriate strategy. Is there a place in that small attention span for listening parents’ instructions, coach shouting or remembering daddy’s tips from before the game? Can an excited child absorb information during the game, that hasn’t been learned during practice just because coach would want that? The answer is no.

Kids mostly participate in sports because of their inner (intrinsic) motivation. It implies participation because of personal pleasure, because of activity itself and not because of outer reward (victory, money). Research has shown that kids participate in sports because of the thrill of the sport, skill development, just because of performing skills, personal achievement and socializing with their friends. Outer rewards or winning are less important and interesting. Kids motivated that way are task focused and not result focused. If we, as parents and coaches (and more and more often media) don’t intervene, young athletes won’t evaluate their performance through result.

I’ll try to emphasize the importance of inner motivation with a story: A man tried to get rid of the boys playing in front of his house in various ways – he threatened, yelled, called their parents, but nothing helped. Finally, he tried this. He paid each boy 20 cents to come back tomorrow and play in front of his house, and of course they came back because they were rewarded. The next day, he offered them 15 cents and then 5 cents the next day. The boys became upset because they thought their returning is worth more, so they informed the man they won’t be coming back. What happened? They lost their primary motivation of just enjoying playing. It was replaced by outer motivation that wasn’t satisfied so the activity stopped.

But as we want to raise happy, but successful athletes, how will this help? If the kids naturally want to excel in sport skills, won’t they do the best when being encouraged to acquire skills and technical elements of certain sports, without stressing the outcome? Without being scared of failure and with their great motivation, kids will excel the most in such surroundings. If we emphasize the result and neglect skill acquisition, we’ll achieve result momentarily, but in the long run we’ll have less successful athlete. Every too ambitious parent and coach should this in mind. There is time for learning and time for results. An Athlete will spend his whole career pursuing results. We can prepare him for that by making sure he has the best conditions for learning, or we can frustrate him by forcing achievement since the early age, and that way motor, technical and tactical skills won’t be adopted optimally.

It’s hard to change certain habits. It’s hard to explain to coaches who don’t feel it that way, that the group of ten year olds is not there for coaches to prove themselves and that result it that age doesn’t make them a better coach. Their result can only be what they achieve as grown athletes or even more, what their sporting nurturing is like. Parent, if you applaud only when goals are scored and value only victories, you handicap your little athlete who’s trying just as hard when losing and who wouldn’t know that loss is a failure without you. let your child set his own goals and he’ll progress more than if you set his goals for him and instruct him how to achieve those goals. Cherish your athlete’s inner motivation to keep them in sports and to make them try to master elements of sport in the best possible way.

Sometimes, less is more. And less is happier.