If you put a bunch of top coaches, sport scientists and psychologists in a room together, they may not agree on much. They would agree on one thing though: an overemphasis on winning and competition, instead of practice and development, is detrimental to the long term performance of young athletes.
Unfortunately, today in youth sports we have become so results-oriented that we have created an environment that does not best serve long term player development, nor does it serve in the long term personal development of our athletes. Our hyper focus on “did you win” instead of “did you enjoy yourself” or “did you improve” is one of the factors that is causing alarming dropout rates across all sports.
I get asked by coaches all the time “how can I get the parents to understand that the result does not matter, and that we need to learn, to practice, and not just play games?”
I get asked by parents all the time “how do we get our coach to understand that the result does not matter, and kids will quit of they don’t get to play, or get berated because they lost or made an error?”
I hear you.
I am working on a new book on developing a positive coaching legacy and creating cultures of excellence in youth sports. One consistent theme that has emerged in interviews and research is that the best coaches, and best programs, have a purpose higher than winning. For example, in the must read book The Messiah Method, detailing the secrets of Messiah College Men’s and Women’s Soccer (the most successful college soccer programs in the United States since 2000) author Michael Zigarelli identifies playing to a purpose higher than winning as one of the keys to success for the program.
Playing to a higher purpose is incredibly powerful because it takes the focus off of today’s result, much of which may be out of an athlete’s control, and places it on things they can control, and things that serve them long term.
Can your team or athlete do the same? Can he or she play and train for a higher purpose than winning?
The answer is a resounding yes. Of course we can.
But how? This was a question I really struggled with. How can teams in every community take the field daily with a focus that goes beyond the final score? How can coaches turn the attention of their players to something that will benefit them in their long term development, but might not benefit them today? How can parents find a way to not get so caught up in today’s score, and actually help their children measure progress and development, instead of simply “did you win?”
I really did not know exactly how to do that except through constant communication, parent and player meetings, and a solid club curriculum and philosophy.
Then I met Willie Cromack, a soccer coach from Vancouver, BC and the Founder of Play Better. I had a better answer!
Cromack is a former collegiate soccer player who left the game after college to run the family bike shop. During his time at the shop he became heavily involved in charity bike rides, raising money and awareness for everything from cancer to education to the homeless.
Cromack noticed something about the participants in his charity rides. They were motivated by a higher purpose that gave them the energy and motivation to complete daunting rides. They focused on a purpose much higher than winning the race, such as raising money by completing a feat of endurance and perseverance. Most importantly, simply by completing their goal, they won!
These bikers had a purpose much higher than winning, which each of them was in control of achieving. Upon completion of their events, what Cromack saw was a pride in accomplishment, in the completion of a journey, in the fulfillment of a dream, regardless if they finished first or last. As he told me, “this experience showed me the trials that people would go through to make a difference on the planet and for people they loved.”
Then Cromack thought “Why can’t we do this with my youth soccer team?”
You see Cromack, like all of us youth coaches, took the field each and every week preaching technical play, such as passing out of the back, or playing to feet instead of just kicking the ball away. He challenged players to take players 1v1, instead of getting rid of it. And as he did this, his team lost games. They lost to teams that kicked it over the top to the fast kid. They lost to teams that had their goalkeeper kick the ball as far forward as possible, instead of rolling it to a defender and trying to play. They lost to teams that were more concerned with today’s result then the development of a future player.
Inevitably, like most youth coaches Cromack struggled to convince his team parents to be patient, and that losing by playing the right way would eventually lead to wins down the road. He struggled to convince opposing coaches of the need to teach and play the game correctly, and that the scoreboard meant little in the long term. He needed a way to play to a purpose higher than winning, and help his team and their parents understand how to do that. Thus Play Better was born.
Play Better is an online giving platform that can be run through a simple phone app. Teams create a team page that handles all the administration of charitable receipts, collects reward donations and allows supporters to leave comments or compliments for players or the team. As Cromack says, “It’s like a benevolent team Facebook page!” (click here for an example).
“At its simplest form,” says Cromack, “Play Better serves to change the ‘goals, wins and rewards’ mentality (something I have written about previously here) and alter the state of the game. This leads to big shifts developmentally as a player, and on the sidelines with both coaches and parents supporting the process more than the immediate result. By refocusing the “goals and wins” to something developmentally sound, and rewarding those achievements with a bigger external motivator like a charitable cause, we alter the culture immediately.”
Cromack decided to try his idea out on his son’s soccer team first, and soon realized that many of the families were being dramatically impacted by cancer. “My experiences with biking charity came flooding back. We invited the players to make a difference by reaching developmental metrics that would reward them with donations to help fight cancer.”
The results were immediate for the team. The players loved it. The parents endorsed the higher purpose because they saw their kids learning on and off the field. Everyone involved felt the culture shift.
“The key was that we attached meaningful technical development goals to a reward,” says Cromack. “They were never just made up. They were directly related to what would make the boys better players. The results were better players, a better environment to learn in and overall learning that went beyond soccer.”
By setting technical goals, such as completing 100 passes or playing back to the goalkeeper 20 times, Cromack’s team started playing better without ever speaking about winning. “Players know what they are aiming for and while the technical goals are there, the idea of attempting to win the game is never taken away. Winning simply finds its rightful place in their brains; important, but not more important than the world and their own development.”
The program is both enjoyable and challenging for coaches. They enjoy it because it takes the steam out of the ‘must win’ parents. It challenges them because it makes them reflect on what is important. Developing technical, thoughtful players is actually much harder than utilizing a few athletes and playing for a win, especially at the younger ages. Coaches must teach and help their players reach measurable, technical goals. Every player matters, and they all must contribute to achieve their goals. Says Cromack, “Everybody needs to be at their best to make the most difference.”
What has been most surprising to Play Better participants is how it has changed the culture of the games for all involved. “We had a young girl’s team play and their cause was to Stop Bullying,” says Cromack. “They presented their opponents a pink wristband before their game and then went out and played. Nothing more or less, a simple presentation and then the team prepared to play soccer. The referee was blown away by the positive environment both on the field and the sidelines. He hadn’t seen anything like it. He said it was his easiest game to referee in years and he even enjoyed it. It was real development in action. Two weeks later he donated all his refereeing fees for the season to support their cause!”
The biggest difference Cromack has seen is with the fearlessness of the players, and the willingness of parents to let their kids fail and learn. “We have kids challenging themselves to be fearless in games! Try a nutmeg, be creative, watch a runner…and then drop a donation in if they hit the killer pass. This is changing their way of thinking and changing the game. You tell me, could you yell at your son or daughter if they make a mistake trying a nutmeg in order to support a local charity? Or if they mishit a pass when their intention was to connect the pass on behalf of a eradicating a disease? Impossible. You don’t have a heart if you can still be annoyed. Maybe a tad frustrated, but bigger picture prevails for parents, players and coaches!”
As Cromack concludes, “Play Better at its’ root is about developing better players and better environments to learn in. It is a true actionable plan. It allows anybody with a desire to change the way adults look at youth sports to go take action. It is not only about fundraising. It is about motivation. It is encouraging coaches help players reach technical goals and take ownership. It is about quieting down the car ride home and inviting kids to ask big questions. It is about allowing them to think they can fix the problems of the world and feeling like part of the solution. It is about every single child gaining something from sport.”
“In short,” says Cromack, “players can focus on the fun and improvement. Coaches can focus on teaching. Parents can focus on support. Everything moves back to equilibrium and where sport should be.”
Play Better is currently available in Canada, and should be rolling out in the United States in late 2014. Cromack invites everyone who is interested in his work to reach out, regardless of country. If you would like to learn more about Play Better, and how to bring it to your team or club, check out his website or email Willie at email@example.com.
Through Play Better, your team could soon be playing better, and for a higher purpose than winning.
And please share your thoughts and questions below about Play Better, or similar programs you know of that are changing the culture of youth sports for the better.