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Youth Soccer Player Development vs Winning at All Costs - Part 2

Youth Soccer News: Youth Soccer Player Development vs. Winning at All Costs – Part 2

We hear it all the time: there is too much emphasis on “winning at all costs.” Yet how many times have you gone to a game and heard parents yelling at the kids to do what it takes to score goals and win? Coaches are told from one side that development is the priority in youth soccer, but then see their decisions questioned when the team loses.

READ PART 1 on Player Development vs Winning with Alberto “AB” Bru of Real So Cal Soccer ClubColin Chestersof Surf Soccer ClubNoah Gins of Albion Soccer ClubTeddy Chronopoulos of Chivas USA Youth Academy and Warren Barton of Fox Soccer TV and San Diego Flash Soccer Club to get their insights.

At the top, Directors of Coaching have the unenviable task of balancing these often competing elements – winning versus player development. What do coaches really think about winning games compared to developing successful players? SoccerNation spoke with top Southern California coaches and a former U.S. Men’s National Team member for their views.

For the second part of this new series on player development, SoccerNation spoke with Christian Lavers of ECNL, former U.S. National Team captain Thomas Dooley, Billy Garton of Manchester SC, John Napier of San Diego Soccer Club (SDSC) and Eric Warner of FC Hasental.

Christian Lavers of ECNL

Christian Lavers, President of ECNL and Executive Vice President of US Club Soccer

How do you balance player development and winning?

The answer depends on whether you are looking short-term or long-term. In the long-term, the two match up very well – if you do a good job coaching and developing players (inspiring, teaching, and challenging them), your teams and the individual players will generally be successful.

The problem is in the short-term.

Teaching players to solve problems creatively and with skill, to have confidence with the ball and to try and play possession-oriented soccer, usually doesn’t result in competitive success at young ages (or at any age when the players don’t have a high enough skill level yet). In the short-term, you need to have confidence in your ability to teach.

You need to educate players and parents about why your methods are best for the individual players in the long-term, and you need to be consistent in what you are teaching and saying. Then you actually have to deliver on the expertise you are talking about.

All of these things are a lot easier when you have a great staff of teachers and when you have educated your club members about the process. Overall, the guiding philosophy of a youth club has to be about individual player development – with the understanding that success comes as a long-term by-product of this process.

How important is winning, and why do you feel this way?

Competing to win in everything is incredibly important.

Players need to learn how to compete against themselves, how to compete against their teammates and how to compete against opponents. Learning to compete against themselves motivates players to train harder and to train on their own. Learning to compete against their teammates ensures that the daily training environment constantly pushes players out of their comfort zone and is as game-realistic as possible.

Learning how to compete against opponents is the easy part – and that comes as the players get older in terms of situational understanding, etc.

When players understand that competition has physical, technical, tactical, and psychological components, and that those components exist in every session and in every game, then they will start to win as they continue to develop. Again, I would fall back on a developmental concept: individual player development includes learning how to compete – and learning how to compete is a step in learning how to win.

Do you believe a club's reputation is impacted by their teams' winning records?

Of course – but especially if that is the main way the club defines success. Unfortunately, too many youth clubs trap themselves in this mentality. They sell winning to their parents and players as the Holy Grail and forget to sell the most important part of great youth clubs – individual player development. Or they win in the short-term in spite of a lack of development.

When player development is not just in the mission statement of the club, but is also internalized and embraced by the actions and philosophies of the staff, then it becomes far easier to build a club reputation on things more important than winning. At that point you can build a reputation on the opportunities that the club’s players have earned through their development (whether collegiate, national team, or other), and on being a club that helps players maximize their potential. At that point, your teams will also have found plenty of success – because the players are better.

When do you coach to win?

I think every competitor always wants to win – whether they are a player or a coach. The important thing is to manage the desire to win and put it into the right perspective.

Winning by playing bad soccer, by joy-sticking players and sacrificing long-term development, is a problem with youth – you are cheating the players in the long-term.

Of course, as players get older, learning how to win games becomes a part of their development. At what point a club starts to increase focus on results really depends on where the players are in their development (their skill, maturity and understanding) and on personal philosophy.

Of course, when players are 15 to 18, there are some games that have more “at stake” than others in terms of qualification for play-offs, championships, and so on. At that point, if you have done your job over time, you may vary your style or game-plan a bit – but you shouldn’t have to abandon the principles the club stands for in terms of the right way to play and coach.

If your players did not pay to play, would you coach differently?

No. I would question whether anyone who answered differently was coaching the right way for long-term development.

Do you have any other thoughts about winning and development?

It is easy to be a coach when your teams win; problems are hidden, complaints usually are muzzled, and generally players and parents are happier. Losing, however, is not only unavoidable but it is an important part of development. If I see a youth team that has an unbelievable record, or a ridiculous numbers of goals scored in their competitions, then there are probably players on that team that should be playing at older age groups or at higher levels.

Keeping those players at a level where the game is easy allows a team to win at their current level, but it kills the long-term development of those top players. As youth development professionals, it is our job to put players in environments that challenge and stretch them – and if they are in those environments, they certainly are going to have bumps in the road.

Thomas Dooley, former U.S. Men's National Team Star

Thomas Dooley, Former U.S. Men’s National Team Member

How do you balance player development and winning?

The younger you go in soccer the less important winning is.

You have to put the right player in the right position and teach him how he needs to play and what he needs to get done.

Every player has to have a lot of knowledge about the game. That is how you win games.

Sometimes – I mean sometimes, maybe the last 10 minutes – you have to change the what your are doing on the field because you want to win. But 95 percent of the time in a higher level of the game this doesn’t work. On the youth level of course, it is much easier.

How important is winning, and why do you feel this way?

It all depends what level you are playing. Everybody wants to win. It is also important to develop the drive of wanting to be successful. You create a winning gene that knows how it feels when you are successful.

Do you believe a club's reputation is impacted by their teams' winning records?

Of course.

When do you coach to win?

Every training! Everything in training is about winning a game.

I coach to make a player better and to be the best he can when it counts.

When everybody plays best you need to form a TEAM. And the best TEAM wins.

If your players did not pay to play, would you coach differently?

No, I would not.

Do you have any other thoughts about winning and development?

Developing a player doesn’t mean winning a game.

Developing a player means you won by making a player better.

Youth soccer in America is too much about statistics.

Billy Garton of Manchester SC

Billy Garton, Co-Director of Coaching at Manchester SC

How do you balance player development and winning?

Player development should be an ongoing process, with most of it taking place on the practice field. It is then refined during game time and halftime and full time team talks.

It's a fact here in Southern California if your team isn't winning its fair share of games, then the best players will leave if a neighboring team is winning more.

This may be the case even if the coaching is superior at the team with the poorer record and even if there is evidence of significant player development.

Player development and winning often go hand in hand. As a great believer in developing good teams and players, as opposed to 100 percent recruiting of good players into a team, I think the results often come as a consequence of nurturing and developing potential.

How important is winning, and why do you feel this way?

Unfortunately we exist in a results-driven community and society, and as we run soccer businesses it is often what we are judged on.

Experiencing winning is very important to all concerned. It often confirms that things are moving in the right direction both for players and coaches, especially if the level of play is fairly equal.

I think there is merit to thinking that “winning at all costs” is wrong, especially if the style of play does not teach the fundamentals of soccer. Big, fast, aggressive play with little or no technical or tactical prowess is not for me. Neither is playing kick ball just to get the fast forward in on the goal.

We are doing a disservice to our players if they are not taught the basics early, then adding relevant information, skill, technical prowess and knowledge about the sport as they progress in years and capability

Do you believe a club's reputation is impacted by their teams' winning records?


You have to have some evidence that you can win, or at least compete at your level of play. That often confirms that the coach can develop players and shows evidence that the team is cohesive and progressing.

We are just catering for our clientele. Parents and kids mainly want three things: a team that can win, lots of playing time and a good coach. Sometimes I'm not sure in which order.

When do you coach to win?

You coach to win in big tournaments, against rival teams, against great teams and to challenge yourself and your players.

If your players did not pay to play, would you coach differently?

No, I think all coaches who have played the game, especially those who have played at a good level, have an innate competitiveness that makes them coach in a particular way.

John Napier of San Diego Soccer Club

John Napier, Coach at San Diego Soccer Club (SDSC)

How do you balance player development and winning?

Technical and Tactical development are so very important at the younger ages especially, but really at any age. We coaches are not all blessed with the naturally gifted player, so the stages of development can be a lot of hard work and a long journey by both the coach and the players.

Young players need to learn the game and the skills involved to be able to succeed and be successful. Coaches and parents need to be patient. 

How important is winning, and why do you feel this way?

We also have to try to develop kids with a winning mentality, because that is the end product.

We as coaches certainly don’t teach our players to lose, but we also have to teach the young ones that it is ok to lose games as long as there are lessons to be learned in those games.

Continually losing games can be a setback mentally and slow the progress, and can bring out frustration in the players, parents and coaches.

Keeping the players involved at the correct level of competition will help give those opportunities to succeed. Some club teams are put into a league or bracket where they are totally out of their depth.

Our “win, win” mentality has not helped the development of players in our country, and our pay-to-play has left many naturally talented kids behind.

If your players did not pay to play, would you coach differently?

No, I don’t think any serious and passionate coach who loves to coach and teach at the younger level would be a part of that,

Speaking of my own involvement in coaching at the youth level, every child that comes through me will get the same dedicated attention, and it’s up to them to accept what it takes to get better and be successful. The most frustrating part of coaching is when there is not the same response from the player to try to get better at both the technical and tactical parts of the game. It has to work both ways to be successful.

Do you believe a club’s reputation is impacted by their teams’ winning record?

I think it depends on the club where you coach – some higher profile clubs demand winning records. Not only does that help with those clubs’ reputations, but also in recruiting players.

Any coach will tell you, “You need the best players to be successful” – it does not matter what level of soccer that is played. Winning teams draw better players, better players make for better competition on your team, and better competition will either make you a better player or you will fall by the way side. The game is all about the players!

When do you coach to win, and what is the difference?

I think every coach, and every player, when they take the field, wants to win; again that is the end product. Winning is a realization of all the hard work you and the players do in their training sessions. Tactics will form a large part of your game day strategy; good coaching and match ups on game days are so important at every level. Defensively against better teams, you need to be strong, with high work rate all over the park. Playing against weaker teams, patience is the main concern.

Sometimes you lose when you are the best team, other times you win when you know it should have been different, and that is why this game is so fascinating – anything can happen.

As long as every player – no matter what age, no matter what level and no matter what league – plays to the best of their abilities and leaves everything on the field, that’s really all that counts.

Eric Warner of FC Hasental

Eric Warner, First Team Coach and Director at FC Hasental

How do you balance player development and winning?

I believe winning is a result of good soccer, which is played by good soccer players. Therefore, our focus becomes apparent – develop good soccer players who play good soccer.

At every level within the club, we demand our players exhaust every possibility to play out of situations rather than bail out. If our players play with exceptional technique, insight and unrelenting competitive spirit, their team plays good soccer, and therefore wins games.

How important is winning?

At the youth levels, we replace winning with "unrelenting competitive spirit," which is extremely important.

At FCH the process is held in the highest regard, not the destination.

The more you focus on the destination, the more you coach to win. The more you coach to win, the more you restrict your players’ freedom to play.

These restrictions inhibit self expression and the joy to play, to explore nuances, to discover who you are as a player. The end result is underdeveloped players, and substandard soccer at the highest levels of your system.

Most youth clubs in the U.S. do not have a legitimate professional side at the top of their pyramid. We should then be reflecting on how many players move on to play at the highest levels of our game, as opposed to how many U12 titles we have won. Winning becomes more important with age and or when a player reaches the threshold of his or her full potential. Over 50% of our first team players have not reached that threshold and therefore we are still coaching them to take risks, to develop technique and insight.

Why do you feel this way about winning?

If you are not developing players that win at the highest levels of your system, what is the point of winning at the lowest levels? That can only mean there is a disconnect somewhere along the way. Your players should be getting better, not worse.

If your players did not pay to play, would you coach differently?


Do you believe a club's reputation is impacted by their teams' winning records?

As parents learn more about the game, a club’s winning record will impact its reputation less. It is the job of the club to communicate to the parents what the club’s intentions are. Whether or not the club honors their intentions will dictate their reputation.

When do you coach to win?

When the opponent is clearly the better technical team we coach for a result. Although I contradict myself here, when our first team is called in to be a sparring partner with Chivas USA, we always play to dominate possession, never to get a result. Otherwise it becomes a wasted opportunity for our players. If the match had other significant meaning to us, for example advancing in the US Open Cup, we would coach to win.

What is the difference?

The difference between coaching to develop vs. coaching to win? When you coach to win you restrict the freedom of your players to experience the true design behind the game, which is in the details. You over simplify. When coaches coach to win, the game becomes mired in tactics. The game becomes about the coach. That sets us back another generation.

This is about developing players that can figure out problems on their own.

Soccer is a player’s game.

There is a reality that is being avoided in that we are all developing our future coaches in our players right now. In my humble opinion, I believe the U.S. will advance dramatically when all of our coaches have experienced the game as players, in its totality.

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