School Sport

A compendium of ‘winning’ thoughts

For most of my life I believed the main point of being involved in youth sport was winning. “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?” This was definitely my thinking as a child, which continued to shape my thinking and approach, both as a teacher and a coach. Perhaps this was because I was in the enviable position to have won much more than I lost. However as I grow in age and experience, as a teacher, as a coach and as a person, I have begun to question this position more and more. Winning shouldn’t be the main driving force in teaching, coaching and participating in youth sport, although I do believe that never winning can have a negative impact as well. Winning isn’t necessarily ‘all evil’, but winning at all costs might just be for children. Perhaps then it is either the definition of winning or its focus in youth sport that needs to be re-examined and redefined?

Here are some collected words from others about winning that are helping me reshape my thinking with regards to youth and school sports:

Al Smith, who has helped begin my relearning process, recently wrote:

I guess the biggest job of work is to help people to understand and get comfortable with the ultimate coaching paradox: the more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win.

On reflection I think being aware of this paradox is a key driving force that keeps me questioning what I say, what I do and what environment I create and provide for the children that I teach and coach sport to.

Vern Gambetta urges coaches to get beyond competition results, the winning and the losses, and focus on the process instead. He reflects:

It is easy to be fooled by competition results both good and bad, wins or loses. Wins can disguise deficiencies and losses can hide progress. The take home point is to always focus on the process and never lose sight of the ultimate long-term goal.

If we spend our time with children only talking about winning and losing, do we rob them of learning opportunities? Do we also raise stress and anxiety levels for them, because this is how they see their own self-worth being involved in sport? If we do then perhaps they will begin to only view themselves through the lens of winning and losing, which is neither enriching to their lives or allows them to flourish.

Coach Reed tweeted:

We’ve been using the wrong word in sports. We all talk about “winning”. We should talk about “competing”= Effort, resiliency, courage.

In his excellent Ted Talk he talks about how coaches words have a lasting power. It is the words that you use that is your legacy. That we need to use them wisely and elevate the child not only above the binary of winning and losing but beyond the game as well.

Mike Prior, who runs the PE Circle, wrote two pieces about winning. The first What is Winning? were his reflections after coming home from a Year 9 School Football match. Mike, like myself, believes that competition for youth sport needs to be redefined. He offers this suggestion:

In school sport, we need to rethink the definition of winning. Winning isn’t beating the opposition, it’s two schools coming together to provide another opportunity for pupils to be competitive and using this to draw out the positive characteristics that we want pupils to display. It’s about giving pupils an opportunity to play in a competitive environment which allows the players to develop. In short, it’s about the children.

Mike’s thinking that winning should be defined by the children is one that appeals to me in many ways. Winning then becomes what they collectively want and it’s the teacher or the coaches responsibility to help support and encourage that. In his second piece, about the positive outcomes of losing:

Ultimately the kids want to go and enjoy the experience, and we all know that losing isn’t fun. If we can take the focus off the result and put it on to the performance, then we are more likely to keep pupils engaged, and help them to have a better understanding of their own performance. I think we, as teachers and coaches, have to embrace the mindset and behave accordingly, and not just say it to the kids, as they’ll see right through it if we only pretend not to care about the score.

We must model this behaviour to the children in our care. The way we act from the sideline, our body language and what we say has a powerful impact on those children. They are able to pick up on these behaviours. So do we want to be saying to them, with every fibre of our being, that the result of a game is more important than them, their experience, their development and their happiness?

The Whitehouse Address however challenges the idea that winning is all bad, that in some ways there is an importance of winning:

…winning is not a bad thing. Competition is a key aspect of development. Wanting to win and having a winning mentality are key areas when discussing player development. A positive result and winning the game, this is a bonus to good performance. Ultimately we as youth coaches will be measured on the development of players, not on results! However we must produce players who can compete and who strive to win. Not allowing them to lose is not a smart approach to develop a culture of youngsters who have the resilience and perseverance in times of difficulty to overcome the challenges in front of them. We don’t want quitters, we want fighters.

To do that we need to create an environment around competition that challenges the worst aspects of it and promotes the best. Rising to the challenge, determination, perseverance and commitment, whilst at the same time having a deep understanding and respect for the rules. That satisfaction is not in only winning, but in having competed and put in a worthy effort, even in defeat or failure. We need to pass on to the children the knowledge that the pleasure and joy gained by winning can take such a long time to experience and then when achieved is only momentary and fleeting. For real long term enjoyment to be had they must learn to focus on the small improvements that they make whilst under the pressure of competition and revelling in the dealing with competition itself.

For me personally I need to continue to redefine what ‘winning’ means within the sporting environment of my school. That we give it a clear educational purpose that does not solely revolve around winning at all costs and the labels that not winning brings. That if I manage the experience of competition well for my pupils, then they will learn that winning and losing are just in fact the short term consequences of the long term goal of self improvement.

By @ImSporticus

Lecturer in PE, Sport and Physical Activity. Helping others to flourish through movement.

5 replies on “A compendium of ‘winning’ thoughts”

I really like your post. I’ve been struggling with the winning/competitiveness thing for a while now too, but I’ve been off on the other extreme focussing just on development and pretending not care about the score. I think with youth sports this type of discussion comes down to how we as coaches define success. I personally love Coach John Wooden’s take on success: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.”

Thanks for bringing together these great insights.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.