May 16, 2010

Winning and losing must be kept in perspective

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Winning is important. When we play, we play to win. And we should. There are a number of other reasons to participate in a competitive sport, but one of the most important reasons is always to win. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any need for a scoreboard.

I have never been a big fan of the saying, “winning is not important.” It is -- at every level. We play the game and compete with the ultimate goal of winning. It’s that simple. Adults and kids of every age love to win and hate to lose, some more so than others. And there is nothing wrong with that. So we are kidding ourselves if we think that winning isn’t important.

Youth sports studies indicate that winning does not rank high on the list of reasons why kids participate in competitive sports. And that is very true. If you have ever had the pleasure of coaching kids -- of any age -- you should understand that. Having fun, meeting new friends, being part of a team and learning new skills always rank higher on that list. Winning comes much closer to the bottom for kids. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to them; it’s just not as high a priority.

The reality is that winning is much more important to the adults than it is to the kids. The problems arise when adults are unable to cope with the outcome.

One of the biggest problems with winning is that it is often the only measure of success in some people’s eyes. A couple of years ago I was coaching a girls team that lost a hard-fought, 3-1 game to an opponent that was a little better than us and probably should have beaten us 75 percent of the time.

In the postgame mingling in the lobby while waiting for the players to come out, several of the parents gave it the old, “Well, they just didn’t have it tonight, did they?” Well, actually, they did. In fact, after the first period, which we dominated territorially yet trailed 1-0 on a late goal, both I and our other coach said to each other, pretty much at exactly the same time: “That was the best period we have played all year.”

It actually was one of the best games that we played the whole year. But, because we ended up losing 3-1, the perception was that we didn’t play well.

I’ve coached teams that have had virtually no chance of winning games, yet gave great efforts and played as well as they could. Unfortunately, because they lost, the prevailing thought among players and their parents was that they hadn’t played well.

I’ve also coached teams that could have, should have and did beat inferior opponents without their best efforts. Because they won, the players and parents thought that they had played well, even though they weren’t that good on that day. That’s a tough “coaching moment.” While you want to give your team credit for doing what it is supposed to do -- winning the game -- you also need to get it to understand that winning isn’t everything. Giving their best effort and playing as well as they can is. Sometimes the wrong message gets sent.

Winning can mask a lot of problems with a team. Everything must be going well, right? The coach must be good. The players must be learning and improving. Conversely, losing can create problems that aren’t really there at all. But there has to be something wrong, doesn’t there?

It is not winning that is the most important element of a game. Rather, it is the competing and the process that are much more significant. To me, one of the greatest benefits of playing a sport is competing -- giving it your best effort and seeing where that takes you. Over time, your best effort will undoubtedly result in improvement. If you are fortunate, it will even result in some wins.

Unfortunately there are many players who never get the opportunity to see both sides of the equation. Some players always end up on the better teams and, while it looks like a good deal short-term to win all of the time, long-term it can actually be a detriment to the player. They never have the chance to learn the lessons that only losing can teach you – and, maybe more importantly, how to handle things when you don’t win.

Conversely, there are players that always seem to end up on the weaker teams that lose much more frequently than they win. Ironically, these are the kids that just might get the most benefit out of participating, although it never seems so at the time. They have the opportunity to learn how to compete, and what it takes to close that gap between losing and winning.

To some, parity is a dirty word and is equated with trying to “dumb down the game” or bring the best “back to the pack.” To me, it’s more about creating great competition.  

In youth sports, parity provides the players (and their coaches and parents) with the best opportunity to experience everything that both winning and losing have to offer.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.