December 29, 2010

Winning isn't everything or the only thing

By Lyle Phair

The ultimate goal of any competition is to win. Some games or events are more significant than others so winning might seem more important in those cases, but in the end, it all comes down to which team comes out on top in any game that it is played.

Obviously, winning is important. We always play to win. The more wins we get, the better. The more wins we get, the higher in the standings we finish. But what if we don’t win? And what if a team is so good that it never loses or is never challenged, winning every game with little effort?

Ultimately, wins are nothing more than units of measure, like markings on a ruler or mileage on the odometer of a vehicle. The difference is that some of those miles are on a much better trip than others. Some are of a much higher quality than others.

The concept of winning and losing in youth sports is a bird of a different feather than at the professional level. And by professional level, I mean the levels of play where people’s jobs are at stake. That is definitely not the case with youths; if it is, it shouldn’t be. It would be pretty sad that someone’s livelihood was determined by the ability or inability of his kids to perform in a recreational sport.

Even so, there are many coaches and parents who take winning way more seriously than they should. They get far too excited and feeling good about themselves (even though they were not involved in the outcome) when their child’s team wins and far too upset after a loss. At the end of the day, the outcome of a single game or a team’s position in the standings shouldn’t have that much of a positive or negative impact on any adult’s life.

Other than that, we should be proud and supportive of our kids’ efforts, and glad that they have the opportunity to compete and realize the benefits derived from participating in a team sport.

But all too often we lose sight of the process and get fixated on the outcome. We are so worried about our objective that we don’t take the opportunity to enjoy the ride. Yet, if we really opened our eyes we would see that there is way more to the journey than there is to the destination.

The problem is that it is much more difficult to gauge where you stand without a unit of measure like winning a game or sitting on top of the standings. Can we really determine that our team played well if it lost the game? How can we really tell if there was any improvement or growth by the players? Can we really call ourselves a good team if we are sitting at or near the bottom of the standings?

And that is where we often get into trouble as it relates to playing to win. Getting the win becomes too important because it is the only way we can assess where we stand. The measurement becomes way more important than anything else and way more important than it should be.

In youth sports, when coaches make decisions based on the scoreboard in a game or the team’s position in the standings, the results are typically more negative than positive. The short-term goal of winning a game by playing the better players more and the weaker players less or not at all is a negative.

If you really think about it, there really is not much in the way of “coaching” involved in that decision. There is no opportunity for the players that are perceived to not be able to get it done to actually get it done. It’s tough to do anything sitting on the bench. How does a coach really know what they can or can’t do if they never have the chance? How do those players improve and learn how to compete and get experience in different situations if they never have the opportunity?

Worse yet, all too often the better players get overplayed, even to the point where it is detrimental to their performance because they are too worn out to be able to compete at a high level. So nobody wins in that scenario. At least not the players.

When the scoreboard and the standings influence decision-making too much, coaches tend to get impatient. In practice planning, they begin to spend a disproportionate amount of time attempting to teach their team concepts that they think might give it a better chance of winning. They will spend a great deal of time working on organizational and strategic things like breakouts and power plays.

The problem is that to execute breakouts and power plays and offensive zone cycling and neutral zone fore-checking, players need to have the technical skills to skate and be in the right position, handle the puck, pass, receive and shoot with their heads up and have a sense of positioning, timing and the decision-making ability. Without the technical skill sets that require hours and hours of proper repetition in practice, the execution of breakouts and power plays is virtually impossible and the practice time wasted.

Probably the most frustrating feeling as a coach is when it seems like you aren’t making a difference. Skill development can be time-consuming and tedious and improvement never seems to come fast enough. It can be easy to think that you are going nowhere, especially when the only quantifiable unit of measure for most people is wins and losses and the team’s position in the standings, and especially when you are doing more losing and winning and the team is closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

Probably the worst mistake a coach can make is to coach by the scoreboard and the standings. More often than not, bad short-term decisions translate into worse long-term results for the players. It’s not that winning is not important. It is. But it should be the by-product of good coaching decisions, not the driving force for bad ones.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com