Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?


When vigorously promoted competition prematurely intrudes on play, it diverts the attention of the children from their still growing bodies. It robs them of the space they need to explore their strengths, their weaknesses, their endurance, their agility, their -capacity to think in movement in the immediacy of the moment, their kinetic ingenuity, and so on. It catapults them beyond their years and their abilities, deflecting them from testing their possibilities and recognising their limitations in relatively risk-free ways. It shunts their attention from the care and survival of others in concert with their own to a quest for dominance over others. It focuses attention on something altogether different, winning. (The Roots of Morality- Maxine Sheets-Johnstone)

It is an ongoing debate within many governing bodies at the moment. The competitive environment that our young children find themselves in when they get involved in organised sport is being forensically examined and laid bare for all who want to see. It is being laid bare for a reason- It seems that there is much within these adult organised competitive systems that no longer meet the needs of the child in sport.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) in an effort to advance a more unified and evidence informed approach to youth athlete development organised a consensus meeting of experts in the field in November 2014.They critically evaluated the current state of science and practice of youth athlete development. According to the IOC the ‘culture’ of specific sports and youth sports in general, has become disproportionately both adult and media centred. (You can read my analysis of the IOC consensus statement here)

The Swedish Football Association has this week taken the decision to no longer have series/cup winners in competitions for teams with players up to 12 years, a decision that will take effect from 1 January 2017. There has been some interesting fall out and discussions from this decision. As the debate escalates I ask the question:

Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?

I guess the biggest job of work is to help people to understand and get comfortable with the ultimate coaching paradox: the more we talk about learning stuff and the less we talk about winning stuff, the better we get at developing excellence and the more likely we are to win. . (Al Smith- https://myfastestmile.com/)

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn”- even better imagine if winning or losing were both considered equally important learning opportunities.The facilitation of learning in our young players training and competitive environment should be our priority. Perhaps then winning and losing can be understood within the context of the child in sport so that it can be dealt with and experienced appropriately. This of course in many cases means an adjustment to the adult mind-set.

“It is the societal expectation through professional sport that has screwed up the focus of learning and development of children in sport”- Lynn Kidman

What is required here (and seems to be absent from the “fall-out” debate) is the education of adults with regard to the child in sport. Kids should compete, compete a lot but compete in their way. We need to place their physical and emotional needs first. This is echoed by Urban Hammar (Head of Coach Education at the Swedish FA) when speaking about the Swedish FA’s new coach education plan. “Children and young people who devote themselves heart and soul to football deserves responsible and knowledgeable leaders- We have high goals. A children’s rights perspective and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are the basis for the wording in our curriculum”

Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?



13 thoughts on “Why are we talking about winning or losing when we should be talking about learning?

  1. Bra, Mark.Bra. Många bra artiklar i dín blogg. Bra att insiktsnivån lyfts framåt. Sen återstår “bara” att insikterna blir tillämpad verklighet också. Om man ser på glappet mellan forskningsfronten i tex management och organisationsteori och tillämpade metoder i företag så inser man snabbt att korta tiden mellan etablerad kunskap och tillämpad kunskap är ett forskningsämne i sig.

  2. Danny. Good stuff. We need to keep our youngster fit in this digital age.Finding something that the kids enjoy must be the first priority. Once they are enthused about what they are doing, then you can build on that (fitness, a more competitive approach etc.. You must be chuffed with the rave reviews Duncan Watmore is getting (double page spread in the sport section of the “Times” no less

  3. […] Hämäläinen’s ambitions resonate with those expressed by Urban Hammar at the Swedish FA. Teachers, leaders and coaches must be educated from a more humanistic perspective and we need to apply this in our behaviour in and around children. It is after all an adult structured competitive system that we have been mainly using on children. The result orientated climate has its roots in a lack of understanding and especially lack of knowledge on the side of parents who chauffer their children to every training and game often over very long distances. “Through try-outs and early selection programs many friends are lost on the way when the clubs are so competitively structured and oriented. This has a great impact on children. It creates a culture of self at a very early age and in the long run may have a negative effect of the type of person they become on entering society as an adult”. Do we want a society where everyone just competes and is obsessed with results? There is nothing at all wrong with children competing but the “spirit” of child sport loses its meaning when we adults place our adult emphasis on results. So again we ask – Why are we talking about winning and losing when we should be talking about learning? […]

  4. Great blog site.

    I think that the problem stems from the the small Grass Roots Clubs, they need volenteers to survive , but more often than not they attract the “armchair would be managers” who think because they played the sport at a low amature level can easily coach a group of kids to play , but i think it depends on who the person is who wants to volenteer . I believe there are some people who are naturally suited to working with certain age groups who can instinctivly work and need educating on the finer things to do with the chosen sport and who seek to be educated, but there are ones who use the coaching badges for status and still shout and direct childrens soccer like they are working with adults.

    I think the coaching badges (in Germany ) do put the emphisis on learning and to continue learning, but i feel there are fewer “Coaches” who are willing to implement what´s being taught. I have witnessed some appalling behaviour from some “Licenced” Coaches , which i agree strongly to banishing competitive leagues and cups for U13, maybe it would sort out the riffraff from the ones who actually enjoy coaching for the right reasons.

  5. John Wooden the legendary basketball coach won 10 national championships as coach including 7 in a row and never talk about winning to his players.
    He had players focus on the process of getting better and giving their very very best, and what they could control.
    In junior sport the issue is the parents who need the trophy and the win more than the kids, the kids just want to play sport and do their best, as coaches we need to provide an environment where players can succeed whilst they working to improve each and every week.
    More education needs to be provided to parents in clubs and associations as well as coaches on what the real focus should be which is players effort, learning and improvement, not winning.

  6. Great points as always. I feel as though adult egos play such a huge part in youth sports it’s more about them than it is the kids. Even those who have been educated! Time to audit and check in on coaches at thier teams to see if they are emphasising winning or learning.

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