As I was scrolling through my podcasts the other night, I ran across one that focused on competition as a pitfall to the talent development process. I dove into the podcast with an open mind and found the perspective interesting & reflective. There were some parts I agreed with and some I understood, but agreed to disagree. I decided to write my own short piece on the topic.

One of the things mentioned in the podcast was the idea that highly competitive environments promote behavior changes from coaches. They cause coaches to shift to a restrictive, tactical approach that will often limit a player’s options in hopes of eliminating mistakes and winning more games. You see this all the time across all levels- coaches tell players things they can’t do or tactically design strategies that will maximize their team’s win total. In doing so, a coach often feeds their own ego with the belief that their team is “well coached” due to a strategy they implemented to get their team a win. Is a team only “well coached” if they follow a set of rules and patterns? Or if they win the majority of their games? At younger levels, will those same strategies lead to the same results in the future? Or will a team and a group of players that only know how to follow commands or is constrained under a series of rules made by an adult fall short over time in reaching their true capabilities? I would argue the latter.

When we see coaches using the “joystick” approach (meaning they control all movements of each player like a video game) at young levels to win games, many times the argument is that “we have to start teaching kids to win and be competitive”. Is teaching winning in this manner at young ages more important than developing skills, confidence, and the ability to identify & solve problems on their own? The argument of teaching players to win could be made at a certain age, but I think more and more people are taking a win at all costs approach way too early in a child’s athletic career.

I don’t have it nailed down to a science, but when I coach youth sports, I would lean more toward the side of development, which often times ends up leading to more wins as a season progresses anyway. I coach 8th grade basketball in the winter and my assistant and I have always believed in each kid playing in every half, to limit set plays, and to call timeouts only when necessary. We encourage the kids to communicate and solve their own problems at practice & put every kid in different roles to hopefully advance their skill set and understanding of the game. Are we always perfect in our quest? No, we fall short sometimes, but for the most part our teams take more ownership in themselves by the end of the year & they usually need us less & less as the season goes on. We always have players run parts of or whole practices by the end of the year. We are only there to solve disputes or help guide a drill if need be. To me, that’s a well-coached team- when your players DON’T need you and don’t rely on you to give them all the answers and solve all their problems, but have learned to do these things on their own.

Another point brought up during the podcast was the idea of playing time. This is another thing that poses an interesting debate. Should kids be on a team and not play in youth sports? On one side, some would argue that if they don’t play they will become more motivated to advance their skills and get better. The other side, however is that they become unmotivated and quit the sport. To me, especially at young ages, it’s important to try and develop as many players who enjoy the game and the process of improving as possible. You never know what’s going to happen as kids get older as it pertains to physical maturation, new interests, or injuries. It’s not to say that I believe that equal playing time should be given to every kid on every team, but I absolutely do believe that practice opportunities should be equal at young ages, and I certainly don’t believe in completely cutting out a kid’s game opportunities at the youth level, which I so frequently see. 

Without extending this article too long, ultimately, I think at times the overly-competitive nature of youth sports has promoted a dangerous “win at all costs” mentality from parents and coaches stemming from the need to validate their own egos. It’s imperative at the youth levels that players understand the value of competition but it’s not at the expense of environments where they have room to be creative, solve problems, and DEVELOP. It doesn’t mean that every kid gets a trophy, it doesn’t mean that we just roll the ball out and let kids do whatever they want, and it doesn’t mean that every youth team consists of equal playing time, but it does mean that coaches and parents become more aware the dangerous win at all costs mentality & understand the importance of what it means to foster true long-term development.

Thanks for reading!