Did You Win?

(Part one of two)

By Maureen Dracup

Years ago I spent time attending coach education events; a licensing course in Chula Vista, California, the NSCAA convention in Baltimore and the USYSA workshop in Pittsburgh. While the classroom and field sessions are an invaluable venue to pick up new ideas and grow as a coach and educator, the opportunity to meet, re-connect and network with coaches from around the world has an even greater impact on me.

I had a particularly engaging exchange with a coach from Ohio. It was one of those seamless conversations that seemed to touch on every possible subject that falls under the umbrella of youth soccer. At one point, the notion of a “must win” U10 game came up. The give-and-take of the discussion flowed; no debate ensued as we were philosophically on the same page, but it has been on my mind ever since. Most leagues no longer publish standings for this age group and most tournaments are set up in festival format (“everyone wins”) but below the surface, little has changed. Winning the game (league or tournament) is still what’s driving most decisions with our teams. You see this if you stand on the sidelines of many of our U10 games. Go to a game but don’t watch the players; just listen to the spectators and coaches!

I had the opportunity to work with a U10 girls’ team from Chili, NY over the past couple of months. They have all the makings of a successful team … spirit, athleticism and desire to learn. They have supportive parents and a coach that is eager to grow and open to feedback!In the time I spent with these girls, I didn’t make them better players. I did make some fixes to their play that with time and repetition should improve their game. Where I saw the real and almost immediate growth was with their coach!

A statement the head coach made to me early on, “but it’s hard because there’s so much pressure to win” when we talked about staying the course and sticking to training sessions focused on technical development, regardless of the outcome of the league games; using guided discovery rather than always telling the players what they should do … her comment, dealing with pressures to win, is so real!I’ll just bet most of you have experienced this. I know I have. But who is that pressure coming from? Is it the parents? Opposing coach? Club Director? Is it a fear of losing players? Is it your own ego? And while there’s pressure, are you strong enough to stand up against it? Are you willing to fight it? If you work on connecting passes to bring the ball up the field in training, are you patient and allow them to try it in the game even when the pressure is on in your defensive third? If your players try to do this and they get stripped of the ball, do you scream at them (because they failed) or do you applaud the attempt to connect passes (the “intent”) and encourage them to try it again (knowing it might fail again)? If you’re yelling at them in the game, what are you really yelling at? That they tried to use their technique in the game during a pressure situation or that the attempt didn’t work? Should you ever hear a U10 coach or spectator make disapproving remarks during a game?

Can we teach players to compete, to play to win, without compromising development? Absolutely! In fact, we should be coaching our kids to compete, to want to win. But this cannot be confused with coaching to win. When we organize our U10 training sessions to win next Saturday’s game, we’re most likely sacrificing time spent working on critical technical skills. Setting up training sessions filled with competitive, small-sided activities will give players the environment to compete, make decisions and reinforce their technical and tactical skills. We apply our coaching fixes during the training sessions and use Saturday’s game to sit back and assess … see what worked and see what didn’t. Be quiet and plan out your next training session based on what you see needs fixing!

When we focus on the final score to determine the overall performance of a U10 game, we’re looking too big and not using the proper measurement to assess player and team development. If we look at the game as numerous opportunities (to take a defender on with the dribble or to move and change angles to support the player on the ball, e.g.), we stay focused on player development, maintain a competitive environment yet have something real to measure the success (or failure) of the game; real in terms of information that can directly relate to how effective training is, and what could be changed or enhanced. For example, you may have lost the game but if your team is becoming more effective at recognizing when and where to move to support the player with the ball, that lost game was worth it because in the end, your players are growing. I’ve seen too many U10 games decided based on who can simply blast the ball the farthest; more often than not, the score doesn’t tell the full story.

It’s not a skill unless it can be executed in the game; performed under pressure. If they don’t have the environment to try, how do they ever acquire the skills required to reach higher levels? If we only play our best players in their strongest positions, we may win the game but we’re not really progressing (as much as we could) in terms of player development. Thinking of a U10 game as an extension of training just might get your head around this approach, this point of view. Maintain the importance of wanting to win but keep the overall focus on the play that occurred during the game; reward intent and not result. Thinking this way, we also allow each child to succeed as they all have areas of individual strength and weakness.

Maureen Dracup holds a USSF National “B” License, USSF National Youth License, USSF National Goalkeeper License and is the former NYSWYSA Associate Director of Coaching. You can reach her through her blog at

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