Someone sent me a thread of comments this morning from some parents talking about Winnipeg youth soccer eliminating league standings below U12. In case you missed it, eliminating standings and player stats below U12 is part of the general recasting of Canadian youth soccer along the lines of Long-Term Player Development (LTPD). The move has inspired a lot of heated debate in the media in Ontario in particular, and most of the discussion is very poorly informed.
If you want to understand the rationale for why LTPD recommends eliminating standings at these early ages, simply read this backgrounder from the Canadian Soccer Association. I don’t want to waste time reiterating what it already clearly explains. Instead, I want to address another emerging part of the discussion, which is the claim that kids “won’t learn important lessons about winning and losing and dealing with disappointment” if league standings and championship trophies are removed. Below age 12.
I have coached youth soccer for more than 15 years, including the BC provincial finals, and I have raised three children who are top academics and high performance athletes who have also competed in provincial level tournaments. Let me assure those parents and coaches who express concern over the absence of league standings below age 12. Kids will still learn about winning and losing.
Here’s how it works. Week by week, the children will still win and lose games, they will still feel excited when they know they have won, and they will still feel disappointment when they know they have lost. And they will know whether they have won or lost – because indeed, they will keep score, as will the parents and the coaches. This is good and healthy and integral to the sport.
But the kids will forget about the win or loss within 20 minutes of finishing the game. And by dinnertime, they will hardly remember that they even played soccer that day. This is how it should be at these early ages. It’s a game among children, not the World Cup.
But some coaches and parents want to pretend it’s the World Cup. They get very excited with wins, and very upset with losses.
When they feel upset and disappointed, they often want to let the kids know. Some conduct themselves like orangutans on the touchlines, while others are a little more discrete, quietly conveying their disappointment to their children through post-game commentary on the car ride home. All because of the kids’ failure to garnish the three points in the league standings that they needed that day to retain any hope of winning the league title and the championship trophy. At age nine.
As adults, do we remember what it was to be nine years old? Or even 11 years old? And do we imagine that children these ages need to live with the same competitive pressures as a 25-year-old professional soccer player at the World Cup?
Could it be – just maybe – that the cognitive and psychological development of a nine-year-old girl or boy is different than that of a 25-year-old adult?
Let’s think about that for a minute.
And while we mull over that question, consider my observations as a soccer coach who has coached a variety of competitive and recreational soccer teams for more than 15 years spanning ages U6 to U21, including child house leagues where no standings were kept.
The argument about kids not learning how to win and lose is entirely misleading. We are not talking about teenagers as they enter the years where competition and sport specialization becomes important. We are talking about children under the age of 12.
In the absence of league standings, kids under the age of 12 are learning what they need to learn:
"Hey, we lost the game today. That's disappointing. Oh well, better luck next time. Coach says if we practice a little more passing, we’re sure to score more goals."
That’s certainly an appropriate lesson in winning and losing for a six year old, or even an 11 year old.
As opposed to this common scenario where standings are involved:
Dad or mom: "You girls LOST today – I can't believe it! That’s going to cost us. Suzy should have passed, but instead she shot and MISSED – and it cost us three points in the standings! There's no way the team can win the league now. Suzy is AWFUL! And it’s not the first time, either. She should get cut from the team next year!"
And we are talking about an eight-year-old child.
Do we really want an eight-year-old child to be living the disappointment of losing a soccer game for weeks afterwards? And have it affect their schoolwork, their sleep patterns, their social relationships with their peers, and their familial relationships with their parents?
And should we bench them because they are less skilled than some of their peers? Even though their parents paid money for them to play and learn the game, just like every other child on the team? Does benching them help to develop their skills? Does it improve their competitive mentality in games?
Furthermore, if these less-skilled players are deemed to have made a poor play or series of plays that cost their team of eight-year-olds the crucial championship game, should we make damned sure they aren’t selected to the team next year when the kids progress to the dizzying heights of nine-year-old community soccer? After all, there will be a championship title to play for again, and we need to start preparing early….
Sure, having good coaches helps to mitigate these problems. However, even well-intentioned coaches face a huge challenge then dealing with the pressures from the groups of parents who too often become fixated on the “prize” of the league title. I mean, if the league title is there, that must be what it’s all about, right? So why is the coach playing Jacob at forward, when we know he sucks?
The bottom line here is that standings are for the adults, not the kids. In the absence of league standings, kids generally feel disappointment with a loss, but they forget about it after a few hours, if not a few minutes. It’s the adults who can’t let it go.
League standings are part of an engineered competition structure, and the way we structure competition affects how coaches approach that same competition. If we create a structure that rewards “win at all costs”, then we tend to get coaches who care about winning at all costs. If we have a competition system that emphasizes player development, then we start to attract coaches who care about player development and helping kids to achieve long-term excellence. These tend to be adults who care about instilling a love of the game and who make the effort to develop the skills of all players, instead of adults with stunted self-esteem who need check marks in the win column of their U7 league standings in order to find peace with themselves.
Trust me, you don’t want your child coached by someone who desperately wants a trophy on his mantelpiece at home, so he can tell his poker buddies on Friday night, "Yeah, I'm such an awesome coach, I won this trophy with my team ... [hesitates, shuffles feet, casts his eyes downwards, murmurs barely audibly] … of eight-year-old girls ...."
One more point. Some people have tried to argue that eliminating league standings is a form of social engineering. That is, they argue that the absence of league standings is an unnatural state in children’s sport.
Again – really?
When have you ever seen primary school kids keeping standings and player stats?
When I was in elementary school, my rural home was the epicentre of every neighbourhood baseball game, soccer game, basketball game and football game. We never maintained standings or player stats. Yet my friends and I competed so hard against each other that we occasionally got into fistfights when one of us felt aggrieved by a personal foul or a bad call. I’m not advocating that kids have fistfights while they play – I’m just making the point that we still cared about winning and losing despite the fact that there was no league and no league standings.
(Those were great years. As 10 year olds, we provided our own officiating through collective bargaining and negotiation. Occasionally kids would go home prematurely because they felt they had not been treated justly. This posed a serious problem in instances when they took the ball with them.)
The truth is this: league standings are social engineering.
To have league standings, adults actually have to contrive to create league tables, collect scores from different games as they are played across the city, update websites, send people nasty emails when they fail to report scores on time, occasionally hand out fines for noncompliance, and all the rest of it. Your average 11 year old has not the least interest in doing this, and your average six or seven year old certainly doesn’t.
Remember what we are talking about. We are talking about children under the age of 12 years. We are not talking about high-performance players at ages 14, 16, or 18. When the kids get older and their cognitive and emotional development is in the right place, we will bark at them and put more demands on them. Light a fire under their asses, if you will. But we don’t need to do this when they are five, eight, and even 11 years old.
So please stop fretting. The kids will learn how to lose without league standings. And in the process, they’ll actually become much better soccer players with a deeper love for the game.
Copyright © 2013 by Jim Grove. All rights reserved.