Soccer Development Versus Winning

In youth soccer there are many opinions and stances taken about soccer "development" versus winning at all costs.  When a coach or parent places an emphasis on winning, they risk sounding like egotistical assholes and are immediately put into the category of people who dismiss playing beautiful soccer:

"Kick it out!" 
"Common Jimmy, get to the ball!"
"All that matters is we got the W"

 On the other hand, when a coach or parent places an emphasis on development or playing attractive soccer over winning, they risk sounding like softies and it often sounds like an excuse for a lack of results: 

"The other team just had better athletes, but we played better soccer"
"We tried to play out of the back and the other team played kickball"
"In a few years we will see who has the better team, I am developing my players"
"Winning at the younger levels is not important, it is about development"

It is quite the conundrum, and as I have spent the last year coaching at the Junior College level,  U-11 , junior varsity, and now a U-19 team with several players already committed to play in college, I have heard a lot of rationalizing wins and losses from others and from myself in an effort to explain what exactly happened.  

One thing I have realized is that when a team at any age and at any level wins, you get congratulated as a coach. Players, parents and club directors are happier.  From the Varsity coach when my JV team upset a soccer powerhouse school even though we got dominated for the most part I got a text that read- "GREAT job Mat".  But when my JV game lost I would get "Don't worry its JV, results don't matter".  I was left scratching my head wondering which one carries more truth.  

In sports such as American football, baseball, track and field, martial arts, and chess, there is no talk of development that I am aware of...there is only talk of results. Can you imagine a chess player saying "I lost, but I moved the pieces around really well".  That is something no one said, ever. However, does that make it right? Perhaps soccer is different. 

“Some people say that winning is not that important in youth development. I disagree. You learn about being a footballer by playing matches and you learn about winning by winning those games. Playing at United, in the Under-16s and Under-18s, we were expected to win every week. My contemporaries, people like Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs, were born and bred winners, and that was the way United liked it. Winning games prepared us for the first team, where we were expected to win every time we stepped on the pitch. It is a nice idea to say to kids “it doesn’t matter about the result”, but when you become a professional you quickly realize that is all that matters. The sooner you get the winning mentality, the better.”

– Paul Scholes, Manchester United Legend

By the time players are 16-18 I agree with Scholes that playing for results is not only healthy, but vital for the complete development of the player - both mentally and physically.  For players under 16, too often at these ages results matter more than players, and that will hurt in the long run.  How does an emphasis on winning hurt in the long run?  

Aside from neglecting certain skills such as playing out of the back by "kicking it out" or relying on superior speed and size as opposed to creative and skillful play, there are psychological and emotional factors at play.

In their publication "Foundations of Sports and Exercise Psychology," Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould explain the critical factors contributing to early withdraw from sports are a lack of enjoyment, excessive pressure and an overemphasis on winning. In fact, if you ask young soccer players for reasons why they enjoy playing soccer, “winning” isn’t even in the top 10 most common answers. As adults, we hijack their experience to satisfy our purposes.
All too frequently, games represent the “big stage” and are overhyped by parents and coaches. For instance, listen to pregame “pep-talks” and you’ll too often hear coaches saying things like: “This team is really good, you guys are going to have to bring your A-game if you want to beat them.” Or, “Remember, if we don’t play smart out there, they’re going to punish us.” Or, “If you don’t work hard, I’m going to sub you out.” Or, “Last time we played them, they beat us on a bad penalty call. We owe them this time!”
The great majority of young soccer players already want to do their best; they don’t take the field with the plan of playing poorly. The research is clear: these types of pregame talks actually inhibit young players’ performances by pushing them beyond their “sweet spot” level of arousal.


What do players like Maradona, Gerrard, Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez have in common with each other and so many other soccer greats? During their early soccer careers, they all regarded a soccer ball as a toy, rather than a tool. The street ball environment of mixed ages and abilities, without coaches, parents and trophies, allowed these youngsters the freedom to be creative. By having fun, they were happy to play for hours and hours without getting burned out. Research on elite athletes confirms these champions only began to approach competition from a more serious perspective in their later stages of development (often as teenagers).

In closing, it is clear that at the younger ages a love for the game must be fostered and that means parents and coaches keeping their egos in check and staying out of the way. As players get older, we can start emphasizing results gradually more and more and as our main man Scholes said, not doing so would be a disservice.