Winning is fun and losing is not, but adversity is always an opportunity
My son’s U11 team with Revolution lost their first game at a recent tournament. The final score was 1–0 and it hardly felt like a fair result given that we had controlled the game entirely. We failed to convert on a dozen scoring chances and lost at the last minute when our opponent dumped a fluke long ball that skipped over our defender’s head, fell to their forward’s feet, and squirted through our keeper for the deciding goal.
When the final whistle blew 90 seconds later, everyone on Revolution agreed, parents, coaches, and players alike: losing isn’t fun.
Fast forward to the following afternoon and that opponent was playing in the final for our bracket. (We would have been in that final had we converted even one goal to earn a draw in that first game!) Their opponent was a younger team—U10s playing in a U11 bracket—that was effectively a team assembled from all stars in one of the largest clubs in Phoenix. That dominant younger team of all stars had scored 36 goals and conceded 0 in their three group games. They ended up winning 7–2 in the final… and walked off the field. No celebration, no emotional response… just inevitable, foregone victory.
Considering their reaction to what was an assumption of success, most spectators would agree: winning isn’t necessarily all that fun either.
What’s wrong with winning?
Anyone who knows me knows I have a canned response whenever anyone says, about competitive/club soccer, “We’re just out here to have fun.” My cheeky response: “I agree, and you know what’s fun? WINNING.” To quote the former head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Herm Edwards, “you play to win the game.” There’s an obvious difference between professional athletes and children, but there’s an element of truth in that statement, even as it applies to youth soccer. In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with winning!
But think of all of the adages you may know about winning and suddenly things start looking darker. “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” How many times have you seen rabid coaches, frothing at the mouth, screaming at their players, cursing out the officials… all over a game being played by 10-year-olds? Winning can’t be the only thing, but think of another adage: “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” Sounds good… but then why keep score? Why differentiate at all between competitive/club soccer and a Sunday rec league? Winning can’t be everything; it can’t be nothing either.
What’s wrong with winning is when it doesn’t come with adversity. Winning effectively by default generates entitlement and hubris. But winning through adversity breeds character and a genuine sense of team.
Consider the 7–2 final earlier in this article. If that had been the result of a team fighting its way through group stage opponents that were evenly matched (i.e., if the team’s organizers had entered them in the proper tournament bracket), you’d better believe those kids would have celebrated the final win. Nothing would have been assumed; all of their work could have been for naught with just one flukey long ball and an unlucky bounce. Winning through adversity is what makes winning so memorable in youth sports.
I know because my son’s U10 Revolution team played in a tournament last season where every single game was a fight. Sure, some games were easier than others, but nothing was guaranteed. Certainly not the final, which was back and forth until ending 5–5 and going to a penalty shootout (which Revolution won!). Literally no one from the all star team will remember that 7–2 victory; literally no one from the 2012 Revolution will ever forget that victory that went to penalties.
The key is adversity and how you respond
“Sure,” you say, “adversity is great when you win.” I’m here to tell you adversity is the key, and how your child responds to it determines whether or not they turn that key to unlock their potential. Not just when they win—maybe not even primarily when they win—but when they lose as well.
Thinking back to the 1–0 loss in a game they should have won, many of my son’s teammates were in absolute tears after the final whistle. Whether it was due to frustration, sadness, anger, or disappointment, whether it was directed at themselves, the other team, or the referees, it was not a pleasant moment for them. And given that it was the first game of the tournament, they found themselves in a hole: they had two more games to play to have any hope of making it into the final.
They won their second game, lost their third game (to the eventual champions), and didn’t make the final. But you know what else they didn’t do? They didn’t give up. They learned that adversity is not the end of the story, but the beginning. They got to write a new chapter as they grew in teamwork and sportsmanship simply by getting up off the ground, dusting themselves off, and coming out to play their game.
This is where youth sports can teach our kids so much about how to navigate life, which is far more filled with adversity than any 60 minutes on a pitch. They will always face adversity in a broken and cruel world, and the only way to “lose” at life is to give up. If you don’t give up, you won’t lose. Period.
The Revolution way of responding to adversity in good times and bad
So if winning is not everything, if it’s not the only thing, and if it’s not meaningless, what is it? On a technical level, winning is a metric for how well we’re developing as a team and executing our game plan. On a more human level, it’s a microcosm of all of the competitions that mankind has partaken in for millennia. And from a philosophical standpoint, winning is a tool for teaching kids about life and how to ultimately win in life.
Our Revolution coaches celebrate every win. They learn from our wins; if they are too easy, they know we need to progress to the next level of competition. They identify both the individual and team successes that help lead to those wins. And while we enjoy our wins, they don’t let us rest in them.
Our Revolution coaches mourn every loss. If it’s a heartbreaker, they know which kid to console and which kid will tough it out. If it’s a blowout, they know how to set smaller goals, even while the game is going on, and how to help kids manage the sense of hopelessness that comes from losing by eight goals. They are incredibly creative at complimenting kids and recognizing healthy responses to physical and emotional adversity. They know that by encouraging kids to handle adversity well on the pitch, they are growing men and women who will handle adversity well in life.
Whether we win or lose, our Revolution coaches know more adversity—i.e., another match, another training session, another tournament—is just around the corner. Neither our skills nor our teamwork are ever good enough to allow us to slack off because there’s always someone bigger, better, or faster waiting to try to give us a beating. And we know our Revolution coaches will do whatever they can to prepare our kids to face that adversity and respond well. Because they know dealing with adversity is not only about competing well in soccer, but also competing well in life.