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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Kids need to learn “how to lose”, yes, but do we really teach them how? And do we know how to teach it?

One of the criticisms about the introduction of Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) in sports such as soccer here in Canada is that it “kills competition”.
The truth is, that is not what LTPD is about.  What LTPD does look to do is to move Clubs, coaches and parents away from an obsession with winning at the very young ages and instead, focus on ways to help each individual player develop their skills.  Youngsters who want to play purely for fun can do exactly that.  Those that aspire to a future in the sport will be able to focus on what’s really most important:  enhancing the skills they need to achieve their goals.

The above is ideally accomplished in an environment that allows kids to try things and make “mistakes” in games—without worrying that a wayward pass may cost their team a “victory” and a chance to be “promoted” to a better league next season.

Too often in sports like soccer, coaches look for (“poach” in many instances) and select for their teams the biggest, fastest, oldest (born early in the calendar year) players to build their team.  A couple of these players at U9, U10 and U11 can often create a “winning” team.  Actually developing the skills of all the players on the teams becomes an afterthought, and gets lost in translation.

What about the small player, or the late-bloomer?  Forget it.  He or she gets lost in the shuffle when winning is what really matters.

But back to the criticism of LTPD:  some opposing LTPD say that kids need to “learn how to lose” and that by taking away scores at the young ages, we are doing a disservice to youngsters who need to face these important life lessons.

Well, while we all have to learn how to handle life’s trials and hardships, it’s difficult to see why little kids at the ages of 8, 9 and 10, for example, need to deal with “losing” a game.  For anyone in sports, there is plenty of time to “learn” to deal with losing and with things not going our way.  There is still a lot of competition within the LTPD philosophy, but the focus is simply different.  If nothing else, if it helps to reduce the number of youth coaches (and parents) who scream at young players to just “get rid of the ball” or “kick it out, kick it out…” and yell from the sidelines about what the adults see as mistakes—and thereby creating undue anxiety in youngsters paralyzed by the fear of making a “mistake”—it would be a huge success.

The really sad point about critics who just can’t accept the de-emphasis on scores and standings at young ages, and who harp on the notion that “kids have to learn how to lose”, is that many of those same people clearly don’t do a very good job of actually teaching their own children how to lose.

We can say the words, “kids need to learn how to lose”, but do we really understand what we should be teaching them?  It’s way more than learning how to lose a game without temper tantrums, though that would be a start.  It’s learning how to win graciously.  It’s sportsmanship.  It’s attitude.  It’s working hard, truly doing your very best, then learning how to keep your “wins and losses” in youth sports in some kind of appropriate life perspective.

Too often we visit local soccer fields and we see parents screaming on the sidelines and coaches out of control.  We witness parents, coaches and even very young players yelling at referees, showing a total lack of respect for decisions that are made.  Some of these same parents and coaches themselves don’t know how to lose—and they are the people teaching the young athletes.

It’s easy to spot “star” players who get all puffed up when they score the winning goal, but blame others and whine when they lose, or who treat their less talented teammates as “less than”.  Is that what kids should be taught?  Who is actually helping them to learn how to be a better “winner”,  “loser”—and teammate?

Being a “winner”—as a coach, parent or player—surely is about much more than how many goals are scored in a game.  That’s part of the equation, but only part.  And so often, that message is not taught.  All the other (important) characteristics that make-up a “winner”—including being a great teammate, setting the right kind of examples, supporting teammates when they are down, respecting the opposition—are often simply ignored because our team scored at the end and we won the game.

There is much more to teaching our kids about life and coping with losing than we can share here today in this space.  But let me reiterate the point:  it’s fine to talk about the importance of kids learning how to lose.  But who is doing the teaching?  Are we simply leaving the kids on their own?  Are we adults—coaches, parents, teachers, sports leaders—setting any kind of example?  What values do we hold that we are passing along?  More importantly, what values do we actually live and model?

Are coaches getting the professional development (yes even grassroots coaches benefit from ongoing personal development) to learn how to better communicate and help kids with learning to lose—and win? Because if the individuals teaching these life lessons about “losing” are the same people who make youngsters want to quit sports by the age of 13 because their parents and coached killed the love the youngster had for their sport, then we have much bigger issues than whether LTPD discourages keeping scores at young ages.


  1. Hi Michael,

    you cannot teach "how to lose", but you can teach "how to win"!
    A new definition of " to win" has to be installed in the young minds (also the parents, coaches,... have to be teached).

    When children (5-6 years) begin to play the game they have no or barely a notion about the score, they only want to play. Then they hear from their coaches, parents, family that they lost! So the kids begin to wander about losing is not good!!??

    Winning must be an attitude of fair play, dedication, teamplay, respect, admiration, gratitude, pride, perseverance, commitment, concentration, ....
    If we adults would give the kids only a score on these qualities instead of attention to the final score of the match, the kids would find attitude more important then the match score ...
    Even when those kids would become young adults and they would compete in major tournaments they now what is important because having a great attitude will enhance all the components of their toolbox and skills (technique, tactic, psychical factors, psychological factors,...)

  2. Thanks for your post Walter. Well said. Attitude is so important.

    We wanted to highlight that adults (parents and coaches) can help youngsters learn how to "deal" with losing. On that front, there is a lot we can do. Thanks.