“WINNING IS NOT EVERYTHING, IT’S THE ONLY THING.” Vince Lombardi
It’s been interesting over the last month to observe the culture of winning that pervades our sport and whether this is a negative or positive thing when applied to junior sport. To declare my position upfront, from a young boy winning was at the heart of everything I did to the extent that I cheated my partially sighted great grandmother at Snakes and Ladders at the age of six. That said I was raised to play sport in a positive and sporting way with the ambition to win but with the acceptance that losing is part of it.
This topic has long been something that I’ve wrestled with however it became relevant again three weeks ago at an Under 14’s football match. One side was thrashing the other. It was clearly frustrating for the losing side, however the subsequent barracking of an 18 year old referee by the frustrated managers and parents was completely unacceptable. Similarly transferring this attitude to their own team and telling a 14 year old goalkeeper to “sort his effing attitude out” is nothing short of a disgrace. I’m confident most reading this will not endorse these attitudes. However what is interesting is that most likely the people involved will condemn their own behaviour on reflection. This is the thing, when your child is competing, are you still the parent educator, are you the cheerleader or are you the raving fanatic?
Eric Cantona once said “I don’t play against a team; I play against the idea of losing.” The desire to win is generally innate. I cheated my great grandmother because I instinctively could only accept me being a winner, anything else was deeply upsetting and I’m sure the same was driving the coaches and parents outlined above however the difference is the six year old can be forgiven, the adult wants to know better.
Recently I watched a great documentary called “Little Big Men”, about the 1982 Little League World Series which tells the story of a team from Washington who beat a previously invincible Taiwan Team (I know random). The film however goes from inspirational sports story to a sad cautionary tale as the star pitcher of the team aged twelve would then go on to experience four years of verbal abuse from rival teams and parents to the extent that he was spat at, sworn at and intimidated. Needless to say the boy in question became disillusioned very quickly and therein lies a key message. Once the game stops becoming fun and once the stakes become so high that even the adults can’t control themselves then very quickly the child no longer wants to play.
The conduct of the adults involved in junior sport is critical to the existence of junior sport. Firstly you want the adults with the enthusiasm and ideally the expertise to run a team and support their child in participating but crucially you want adults that run and support their child’s team in their child’s best interests and not their own.
Some people may point to success stories born out of parents solely focused on winning for their children. Andre Agassi was plied with amphetamines by his father during in an Under 14’s tournament, Roy Jones Junior, a boxing great, as a youngster used to duck and weave barbed wire at his father’s behest, Gareth Bale regularly cried all the way back to Wales after verbal annihilation from his dad about his academy performances at Southampton. These one in a million outcomes though are rare and come at a price; Jones Jnr and Agassi both have fractious relationships with their fathers, and for every one that is successful there are plenty who go through this trauma for nothing. Another great documentary “The Marinovich Project” tells a story of an American Football obsessed father who literally from the cradle trains his son to be a superstar. The son, Todd, initially flourishes and looks set to justify the sacrifices and hot house environment that has submerged his childhood, however inevitably the strain becomes too much and at the age of eighteen he tragically unravels. Fifteen years later and a heroin problem resolved the father and son are on terms again; however the heartache of that period will remain for a lifetime.
So if we are accepting that the love of winning is natural for a child but not at all costs then where do we look for inspiration? The answer is in a north easterly direction. Ajax of Amsterdam are four time European Cup winners, a footballing counter culture originated in the 1960’s, revolutionary by design, and the heart of Dutch footballing talent that for a country of sixteen million people consistently produces world class players. Ajax legend Johan Cruyff expresses there approach to winning succinctly when he says, “You need both quality and results. Results without quality is boring; Quality without results is meaningless.”
Ajax’s four to eleven year olds focus on technique, insight, personality and speed. At this stage results are secondary. All players will play different positions regularly, all players will be developed to use both feet and all players will be developed on a social level to learn respect for teammates and opponents. Ajax will regularly send teams to international tournaments with development the sole purpose of the trip and at other times they send teams out purely to win. To be clear Ajax and Dutch football in general are the template the rest of Europe aspires to replicate. Barcelona the dominant side of the last decade and the best club side I have ever seen are founded on Ajax/Cruyffian philosophies.
Pointedly as Euro 2016 approaches the Dutch national team has just missed out on qualification to Euro 2016, which brings us full circle in our debate about winning and success being the only thing that matters. The Dutch have failed, so does that mean they should scrap their long held youth development model? In fact they have never won the world cup does this mean there methods are pointless? Clearly not, it might be time for reflection and improvements but a defeat is normal, it happens to all people. The key in defeat is for you to know you gave everything, you were true to yourself and you will respond positively. This is certainly the case with junior sports and this is certainly the attitude any parent involved wants to adopt.
In this country the drive from the FA is to move junior football teams to an inclusive philosophy that creates an environment of learning and fun that is built on the bedrock of a supportive and understanding set of parents. This approach is long overdue and there is plenty of work to be done as highlighted by the fact that some academies will refuse to let parents watch their child’s games and training sessions and every academy will ask parents and players to sign a code of conduct.
For a long time I have been torn on this issue of where winning sits in junior sport. I remember my junior football years being driven by the desire to win. As a coach I initially struggled with the idea of youngsters not focusing on winning and I debated it several times with football coaches and alike. Writing this article however helps me to see it clearly. The child will always want to win. It does not require suppression but equally it doesn’t require aggression. It is the coach and parents role to put the game into perspective. It is the coach and parents role to show them that a 1-0 win is great but if you’ve not strung a pass together and played with fear for the whole game then there is work to be done. Likewise if you lose 3-0 against a good team but gave everything and expressed yourself then there is plenty to be happy about. What is absolutely clear is that winning is not the only thing when sport has so much more to offer.
Postscript: This blog was initially drafted a few months ago, (a new baby really slows you down) in that time Johan Cruyff has passed. I wanted to mention it as he was a genuine footballing genius both as a player and a coach. As evidence of this, please watch some of his interviews on You Tube which display his enviable self-confidence and visionary views on the game. Pep Guardiola is a disciple of Cruyff as are so many other influential coaches and players. Added to that his Foundation does amazing work to create sporting opportunities for people with additional needs. A truly great man.
Secondly I was at the Egerton Junior Football Festival last Sunday and was really impressed with what went on. The conduct of parents across the board was excellent and a really positive environment for children to play football was created. This combined with some great football on show was a real pleasure to see.
Finally, I’m sure I will see plenty more evidence of the impact of winning and losing on young sportspeople next week, the 31st May to the 3rd June, when our half term multi sports camp and our first Futsal Camp starts at Tytherington School. To book your child’s place, please contact me on 07720629690.