I am an avid Seinfeld fan. I probably have seen every Seinfeld episode, and thanks to TBS, probably multiple times. Hardly a day goes by where something doesn’t happen that reminds me of a Seinfeld episode. One episode that sticks with me places Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer at a party in an apartment in NYC. The party takes place during the NYC Marathon, where attendees cheer on runners as they pass by. As the episode closes, a woman at the party (possibly the apartment owner) yells, “You’re all winners!”
I think we all understand what she meant; that everyone that participates in such a grueling event should be applauded for even making the effort. But, they’re not all winners. In reality, a marathon has two winners; the top finishing male and top finishing female. Yes, I understand some races may honor ‘winners’ at different age groups; but again, there is one male winner and one female winner.
I feel like there is a lot of dialogue in today’s society about the dangers of over-emphasizing the priority we place on winning, when we should be more concerned about making sure the kids have fun. We tell our kids, “Don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out and have fun.” And I don’t think this is isolated to sports. I feel like this attitude is now being reflected in schools, on playgrounds and even in our homes.
First, let me discuss the idea of ‘fun’. In a previous blog, I cited an ESPN study that looked at why kids are quitting sports. The #1 reason was because they were not having fun. They didn’t dive deeper into what ‘fun’ is; so we are left to decipher the meaning of fun. For me, kids have fun when they get better at what they do. You improve the skills of a player and they have more success. The more success they have, the happier they become. The happier they are, the more they want to do it. I think too many coaches, especially coaches for younger kids (ages 6-9) view ‘fun’ as kids laughing and having a good time by playing games and clowning around. I see many coaches giving points to kids if they hit a ball up the middle or on the ground. They may have relay races as a warm-up. Both of which are fun; but they don’t get the kids better. A kid can display poor mechanics hitting and still hit a ball up the middle. Kids can have poor running form while running a relay race. Yes, they’re having fun, but its not getting them better. Placing an emphasis on having a good time will not get the kids better. And in the end, these kids will still quit. Why? Because as they get older, they won’t get better. And they won’t want to play a game where your every mistake, error, strike-out, etc is seen by everyone in attendance at the game. And I don’t know a single person who wants to continue with something where they repeatedly struggle.
Now, let’s focus on why winning IS important.
In our locker room at Wake Forest, we had a sign above the door that led to the dugout that read, “First Step to Omaha.” That was our goal every season, to get to the College World Series. Every practice was a chance to get us there. Every practice, we had a goal to get better so we could have a chance to play for the World Series. The same should be true for youth sports. If your league has a championship, your team’s goal should be to win the championship. And the mindset for everyone at practice should be to make sure the effort and drills are leading the team to that goal. If each player gives their best and most sincere effort, the team is not guaranteed the end prize. But what it will do is get each kid better. And remember, getting better will yield more smiles from kids as they’ll find themselves striking out less and fielding more balls. And if the team finds themselves in a position where they can’t win that championship, you need to realign the focus. Focus could now be set on winning each remaining game. Different goal, but same mindset at practice. The goal of winning establishes a sense of purpose for your practices.
Now let’s look at the other end of the winning-losing spectrum, which is losing. Losing can teach us so much, especially when we start to analyze why we lose. No one likes to lose. I haven’t met anyone that says, “boy, I hope we lose today.” Good Coaches for teams that lose spend time discussing why they lost. Maybe it was poor defense. Maybe it was because they only got two hits. Maybe the focus was poor. You lose for a reason. And it’s important to understand why you lose so you can try to prevent it from happening again. At the youth level, we need to get our kids thinking along these lines. Ask them why they think you lost. Get them understanding that your team should, at practice, focus on those things that will get them in the win column. But, if you’re not focused on winning. If you’re really just focused on having fun, then its going to be hard for you to get the kids caring as to why they lost.
Getting the kids interested in winning; and hating to lose, can better prepare them for their future. It instills in them a sense of competitiveness that they will need as they grow older. Because when they grow older, life becomes a series of competitions. Sales Professionals compete for a client’s business. Job Applicants compete for a position at a company. And each and every day, businesses compete for revenue. So why not get the kids prepared for what they will experience? And if you don’t want them to place an emphasis on winning, when should they? How do we define the age in which winning should be a focus in our children’s lives?
And one last thought for parents and coaches. Let’s say you communicate to your team that “it’s not about whether we win or lose, but whether you have fun.” What happens when you lose a bunch of games? Are you going to be ok with it? I’ve seen coaches, who have tried to de-emphasize the importance of winning and losing, become very frustrated when they lose more than they care for. They become frustrated and the fact that they do want to win begins to show. Kids will see this and your original intentions now become questioned. You know you want to win. It’s going to be hard to keep up the “hey it’s about having fun” mantra if you continue to lose.
Do your players a favor and make winning a goal. Teach them the attitude and the work ethic that helps create winners. Teach them how they can learn from losing. And do this at a young age. The younger they are exposed to these things, the better the impact will be on them as they grow older.