You are watching your son’s or daughter’s soccer game. Another parent arrives late, sits down next to you, and asks “How are we doing?”.
How do you respond?
Here’s how I responded on Sunday during my daughter’s U14 game: “Good! We’re up 2:0 already.” And I think this has been my response every single time these last ~five years.
Response from the other parent: “Great! Who scored the goals?”.
It is so deeply ingrained in us – it’s almost a reflex to respond with the score.
But, hold on. Why are we focusing on ‘winning’? This isn’t a pro game where every result matters. This isn’t a World Cup Semifinal.
And why does it matter who scored the goals? Often the genius isn’t in the final kick into goal, it’s the actions of the player making that final pass or a sequence of dribbling and passing between three of four players before the final kick into goal.
Ironically, five minutes before this I had a conversation with another dad about the overemphasis on ‘winning’.
This dad suggested that leagues should consider not recording results and stop ranking teams.
We discussed that the focus should be purely on (smaller-sided) development games, especially at younger ages.
Why care about the rankings for eight, ten, twelve, or even fourteen year old youngsters?
And we agreed that most parents look at the wrong things during games, which makes life more difficult for coaches.
By way of background, this dad is a very sophisticated soccer person on many levels and truly knows what to look for. Our daughters play on an ECNL team together. His daughter is part of the US national player pool.
This discussion was partly triggered by two games these last two weeks that made this issue very real for us.
The first game was a tough loss in our State Cup Semifinal against a team that parked the bus and beat us 1:0 with fifteen minutes to go on a long kick over our goalkeeper, who had positioned herself almost half way toward the halfway line as taught and encouraged by our coaches.
This is the modern way to position and move as a goalkeeper (think Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper) and she was doing everything right from a player development perspective.
We had 75% possession and shots against the posts and directly at the goalkeeper but we simply couldn’t score. Last time we played them we won 4:0. That’s soccer!
The winning team’s parents were ecstatic and celebrated loudly. We can’t fault them for that. It was a big semifinal and they expected to lose against our team.
But if I was a parent of a high-performing player on the winning team and knew what to look for during a game then I would stand there much less enthusiastically, reflecting on what I just saw, and consider moving my daughter to the losing team.
Any knowledgeable soccer person watching the game would have clearly seen the difference in longer-term potential between the two teams. My daughter’s team played smarter as a team trying to ‘create’ and the individual players clearly had better skills and soccer IQ. Please trust me when I say that I’m not biased about this.
The second game we played this last Saturday was against a team near Sacramento. The parents on the other team kept shouting things like “come on, use your body” and “big kick now”, and got excited every time their team did something aggressive/physical. You get the picture. Classic textbook case.
We won that second game 5:0. But who cares? Nice to score goals, of course, but we have no interest in our ranking in this league. More important is to focus on what we did and didn’t do well during different stages of the game and different zones of the field.
What worked, what didn’t. Was there chemistry between certain players on our team or did one not know what the other wanted to do most of the time? Did we try a new free kick routine? How about our shooting – was it accurate?
I know all this is easy to say sitting in front of a computer writing a blog post. The emotions during a game often cloud our judgment and responses and most parents just want to have fun and encourage their youngsters and teammates.
But if we truly believe in player development over short-term results and want to support our coaches then we should never respond to “How are we doing?” with the score. We should instead respond with how we are ‘competing’ and learning.
How about something like this:
“Good. Our defenders are working the ball up nicely and we are getting some good diagonal passes to our forwards. Our finishing isn’t too good today, but I love how our goalkeeper is really learning how to play more like a field player. Also, our coach is experimenting with a couple of changes to how our midfielders are connecting. The other team is playing an interesting formation and using high-pressing to try to keep us pinned in our half. By the way, Abby and Michaela are having a great game today. And Ale did that beautiful move of hers – twice! Gets the defender every time!”
After five minutes of back and forth discussion about this, the latecomer asks: “What’s the score, btw?”. “We’re losing 3:0.”
Now that would be an amazing team culture if this was the kind of conversation on the sideline, even just a little of that. Smart about the game (or a desire to learn more about this beautiful game) and focusing on longer-term player development.
Note to self.