Spring sports season is here! As we get ready to coach our youth teams, or parent our young athletes, it’s important to take a step back and remember what it’s all about. As coaches, we are here to facilitate the experience of young athletes. We are here to teach them the value of hard work, how to be a good teammate, how to manage their stress and feelings under pressure, and how to best participate in the process of commitment to a project (the team during the season.) And to help them have fun. These are the life-skills that will be most valuable to them. These are the life-skills that we want human beings to have. But what about wins…
It can be very easy to get lost in the outcome goals. They are a complicated reality that exists. For some youth coaches, they are a very loud reality. We can pretend that wins don’t matter, or that outcome doesn’t matter. How often do you hear a parent or coach say to a young athlete, “It’s okay, it doesn’t matter if you win.” But if it does matter to a young athlete, then it matters. In my experience, from about age six, some young athletes really start to care about wins. For coaches or parents who may have retired from sports and forgotten this, go out and play a competitive game. Remember that feeling? You want to win too.
I wrote about re-defining success a few months ago – we should talk to young athletes about process, helping them learn to shift their thinking away from outcomes. Parents should absolutely and constantly remind children they love watching them play and not put the focus of their dialogue on outcomes. This is an important distinction. For parents, an understanding must be developed with children that outcomes and wins are not connected to love, safety, and trust. The best way to do this is to continuously remind them how much you love watching them play. Keep your enthusiasm and support at the same level as best you can for them, win, lose, or draw. Good game or bad game. For coaches of many young athletes and youth sports teams, though, winning and outcomes can be a valuable teaching tool.
As a facilitator and guide for young athletes, the life-skills in the first paragraph are your primary focus. Without wins and outcomes, however, the process that teaches these life-skills does not flow forward. Wins and outcomes should be understood as part of a much larger and complex system. Winning is a sign at the end of a road, helping to create meaningful boundaries that move us towards something. When I managed my first international baseball team in 2009, my goal was to win a championship. I built a process for moving the team towards that goal. When we won the championship, I was surprised at the feeling of emptiness that followed. I quickly realized the old adage is true, and it is the journey that counts. But without a destination, a journey does not have a direction. And while a directionless journey may be helpful for young athletes when they study philosophy as undergrads, in sports and many of life’s arenas we need structure. As mindful coaches, we can understand that wins and outcome goals are important guideposts for our young athletes’ journies and remember that we’re teaching young people much more than simply the sign at the end of the road. At a certain point in a young athlete’s development, it’s okay for coaches to acknowledge the reality of wins and outcomes and re-structure winning at the same time to promote positive growth. Let’s do it all mindfully, with the intention of using all existing realities to teach the best elements of process.