Is there an appropriate age to push your team hard to win?

There’s an inherent conflict in youth sports that parents and coaches deal with – the balance between being too competitive and not competitive enough. It’s very easy to go too far one way or the other and not even realize it.

A couple of years ago, I was just helping keep track of the players’ time on a youth soccer team that was blessed with a pair of very good coaches. I was standing on the sideline near one of the coaches, who turned to me and said, “Is it bad that I really want us to win this game?”

It was an honest question in the latter part of a close game. Our team, which hadn’t lost all season to that point, had battled back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game heading into the final quarter. Throughout the season, our coaches had been committed to playing everyone in every position and with as equal amount of playing time as possible. This meant that players seldom played the same position from one quarter to the next.

The quandary our coach now faced was that she had played our two best scorers at forward in the third quarter, which had resulted in us tying the score. In order to push for the go-ahead scores, she wanted to keep them in the game at forward. This would mean two consecutive quarters at the same position and that they would each play a couple more minutes than anyone else on the team.

Right or wrong, both coaches agreed that it was OK to put our best players in their best positions for the final eight minutes. It worked better than expected and we scored two more really quick goals, then subbed out and ended with everyone having essentially equal minutes after all.

I know there are plenty of parents and coaches out there with a different opinion than mine, but as ESPN’s Jay Bilas says, “Reasonable minds can disagree.” In my view, youth sports at the elementary school age are all about fun and fostering a passion for the sport. Winning, losing and even skill development is secondary to making it fun for the kids. If they love playing, then skills development and competitive spirit will take care of themselves as they grow and mature. 

That mindset generally puts me on the side of not placing too much emphasis on winning. But at the same time, winning is fun and part of developing that passion for the game is helping kids experience success and the joy of being part of a winning team. The important part is that they each feel a part of the team’s success by being allowed to play all positions and as equal minutes as possible. Once that criteria is met, by all means go for the win. Putting your strongest team on the field late in a close game doesn’t compromise those ideals or send a conflicting message. It tells your team that you care about them and will do your best to help them have fun and succeed.

To help ensure you’re maintaining the balance you feel is right between the emphasis on fun and winning, here are a few pointers on positioning yourself to go for the win late in a close game.

1. Have a game plan

Our coaches did a great job of planning out the first half by setting a starting lineup with specific subs at each position. My task was to log not only the minutes each player played, but also the positions so as to be sure we were rotating our players equally. If you know you’ve split things as equally as possible for the first three quarters or six innings, depending on the sport, it makes it much easier to freelance and play to your strengths at the end of the game.

2. Know your team

After you’ve coached a team for a while, you know their competitive spirit and desire to win. I’ve helped coach teams that barely knew the score and others that cried over losses. Teach them how to lose, but don’t quell their natural competitive fire.

3. Check yourself

For us, having a chart of playing time and positions was a great way to make sure that we weren’t inadvertently going off course. Have a volunteer parent or friend help track things such as minutes/innings and positions played from game to game.

4. Emphasize the fun

Even late in a close game, embrace the joy of playing in a great game. Cheer and encourage. Avoid yelling or showing disgust at mistakes and don’t argue with the officials. A bad attitude can take all the fun out of even the most exciting of wins. 

5. Be proud

Regardless of the outcome, tell your team at the end of how proud you are of how they played and competed. And be proud of how you coached.

RELATED: 6 signs that your child's team has a positive atmosphere

Jim Kelsey Follow

Jim Kelsey is a marketing professional and freelance writer based in Lexington, Ky. His... View Full Bio

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