Playing to win felt great! And that’s the problem.

I coached my youngest daughter’s U11 futsal team this winter, which ended with the U.S. Futsal Northwest Regionals in San Jose a couple of weeks ago. They ended up second.

During the season we emphasized learning to play the game ‘right’, which includes ball control, skills, and playing out from the back. The emphasis was on ‘player development’, which doesn’t pay off until years later.

We played the same way during the tournament, including playing out from the back and using dribbling and/or passing to work the ball into the final third.

We won against all teams this winter (partly because their players were relatively weak) apart from one aggressive team with stronger players that didn’t give my girls any time on the ball, including when we were trying to work the ball out from the back.

These opposing girls were clearly the best opponents we had faced all winter – their futsal club had ‘recruited’ very good players from various outdoor clubs in places like Santa Rosa and the Greater Sacramento area.

So we lost the ball a lot near our goal and then all the opponents had to do was take lots of shots on goal.

They had a couple of skillful players that did some nice things, but overall this was aggression and intensity overcoming players that are still learning to control the ball at age 10/11.

The score during our group game was 5:13 against us, and it could have been worse.

Turns out both teams ended up in the Final so we played them again.

To give my team a chance to win I decided to change our tactics.

Instead of playing out from the back I told the girls to kick that ball up the field and then pressure the other team in their half.

I also kept one girl deep in the other team’s half. I instructed my girls to kick that ball up the field in the general direction of our lone forward and then run after it to pressure the other team in their own half.

This worked wonders. The other team lead 3:2 with five minutes to go, but the score should have been 3:2 in our favor if it wasn’t for two refereeing mistakes. And we had a couple more great chances but couldn’t finish.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about the referees and neither I nor the players or parents protested during or after the game.

The only reason I’m bringing this up is to point out how evenly matched the teams suddenly were.

We went from a completely one-sided 5:13 to a de-facto 3:2 by changing our tactics dramatically.

The game was very exciting and everyone was happy despite the loss. The overall feeling was that the girls battled hard and could have won the Final. And also nice to avoid a repeat of the earlier drubbing.

It felt great!

Now here’s the key issue:

My only objective was to win that Final. The tactical changes and the player instructions had only one goal in mind: to win. There was zero player development.

The quality of soccer was poor. No team controlled the ball for more than a few seconds and it was mostly hustle and long balls to avoid pressure.

Now imagine you’re a coach of one of our outdoor club teams. You’re playing in leagues and tourneys with relatively evenly matched opponents and often stronger teams.

In contrast, recall that our futsal opponents this winter were significantly weaker than us. So it was easy to play the ‘right’ way….even if we lost the ball playing out from the back the odds of the opponent scoring a goal was relatively low.

For the mathematically inclined: the probability weighted ‘cost’ of playing the ‘right’ way (in terms of losing games) was low compared to the gains.

The vast majority of coaches feel the pressure to win games, leagues and tournaments to keep players and their paying parents happy.

The coach needs to pay his/her bills and put food on the table, and the amount they earn is directly related to how satisfied families and the club’s Director of Coaching are.

And it just feels great to win more often than not. One can get addicted to the euphoria of winning, the happy faces, and the write-up on the club’s website…

It becomes very difficult to truly develop players because you will lose a lot of games for many years.

For example, playing out from the back and encouraging players to develop and apply dribbling skills will backfire for many years.

However, players that develop the right way will eventually dominate the same opponents that beat them up when they were younger.

My oldest daughter’s U15 team learned to play the right way. The skills, the dribbling, the off-the-ball movement, the accurate passing, the shooting technique….are nice to watch.

They demolished the opponents 13:0 in the Final of a major tournament, won Regionals and Nationals last year, and are undefeated in all futsal competitions.

And they always (!) play out from the back, they always (!) use skills and ball control and beautiful passing combinations.

They easily beat opponents that try to use physical aggression and/or kick the ball up the field. In fact, we like this because we regain possession and simply work the ball back into the other team’s final third.

It’s a simple law of nature that the other team can’t score without possession. The only team that can score is the team that possesses the ball.

“For me ball possession is the most important thing. It’s the first step and then the second, third and fourth steps can come after. With the ball, you have more possibilities to create something and to concede fewer chances. Soccer is about having the ball, playing and dealing with the ball. Because when we have the ball we score a lot of goals and we don’t concede a lot.”

Pep Guardiola 2015

Here are two brief clips from that U15 Final to give you a taste for their technical skills and ball possession abilities:

To get to this point of soccer skills and IQ you need to have learned all those more sophisticated soccer skills.

It is an absolute guarantee that these girls would not even be close to their soccer proficiency if they hadn’t put in the hard work and patience and been coached to develop as players from a young age.

We were fortunate to have had coaches that for the most part focused on player development and not ‘winning’ and the parents supported that development ‘project’.

So which route do you take? Have some fun and focus on winning these next couple of years or be patient and focus on learning to become better soccer players despite many painful losses and no trophies?

It takes a very strong coach and DOC to truly focus on player development. And patient players and parents.

Everything is stacked against it, but it’s the only way to elevate soccer in our country.

And it’s the only way if you want your son or daughter to become the best they can be at soccer.

And if a club and/or coach prefers to mostly ‘play to win’ then that is fine too. Many players and parents might well prefer this.

But please don’t pretend you’re doing otherwise. Be honest and transparent about it, and let players and families decide which route they want to take.

That futsal Final felt great and I would do it the same way again. But I’m glad we only had to play that way once this winter.

However, outdoor coaches playing most games against evenly matched or stronger teams will have a strong incentive to ‘play to win’ most of the time. Keep this in mind.

Lifelong player and student of the beautiful game in Germany, England, and USA. Volunteer futsal coach and USSF referee.

5 thoughts on “Playing to win felt great! And that’s the problem.

  1. Not sure if this will work but had a question since you ref Norcal soccer games. I was under the impression for the U9 7v7 games that punting isn’t allowed by the goalie past midfield. Now I’ve read in the US soccer preso on the changes that were implemented for small sided games no punting was allowed at all. I spoke to our coach and he said in Norcal it is allowed but I would love to hear from you and any pointers to documentation around this. I think are kids are getting a disservice when they try to play the right way but the other team just punts it.

    Thanks Sterling

    On Fri, Mar 31, 2017 at 10:01 AM, NorCal Soccer Dad wrote:

    > James posted: “I coached my youngest daughter’s U11 futsal team this > winter, which ended with the U.S. Futsal Northwest Regionals in San Jose a > couple of weeks ago. They ended up second. During the season we emphasized > learning to play the game ‘right’, which includes ” >

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    • Hi Sterling – your coach is correct. NorCal didn’t implement the build-out line and specifically stated that punting is allowed. Scroll down this page for the clarification: http://norcalpremier.com/2016-17-norcal-premier-handbook/. Personally I like the build-out line and no-punting rule because it promotes better quality player development, but NorCal doesn’t want to make too many changes too quickly. Btw, it’s common in countries like Spain. Hopefully you will take satisfaction from knowing that your son/team is learning better soccer even if they lose more right now trying to work the ball out from the back.

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  2. “And if a club and/or coach prefers to mostly ‘play to win’ then that is fine too. Many players and parents might well prefer this. But please don’t pretend you’re doing otherwise. Be honest and transparent about it, and let players and families decide which route they want to take.” I totally agree, but of course coaches have incentive NOT to do this, as the parents would quickly learn they were being shamed if their coach had the team playing kickball–and I think that’s the whole point. As soon as parents understand the “right way” to play is the sophisticated developmental way to play, and kickball is what knuckle-dragging neanderthals do, the light bulb will go off. American soccer coaches want the flexibility to do it “their way”, whatever that might be, and having demanding parents insist they only play one way crimps their style. Incidentally, your change in tactics to play more directly is just that–at tactic, not the overall strategy. It doesn’t hurt to employ it to change things up, as you’ve described. Finally, it’s really obvious when futsal referees allow physical play, since all the body-checking, tackling and slide tackling allowed in soccer is not allowed on a futsal court and for this reason I think kids playing futsal from U6 to U12 is a GREAT idea since it emphasizes skill and minimizes potential for injury. Another valuable column–thanks for sharing.

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  3. Good blog and solid points. I believe there needs to be a balance between development and winning. Developing players is 100% the right course, but that can’t be your *only* focus. Developing a player but getting drilled 8-0 every game will lead to demoralized players who aren’t having fun – and will leave them in search of an activity that leads to both fun and self-fulfillment/development. But playing “cheap” soccer (not “learning” and appreciating what the game can bring) and winning all the time offers no true sense of accomplishment either (where are the challenges?). When I coached, I was lucky. I was a non-paid parent and had no DOC lurking over my shoulder. But I also had a National coaching license and a deep understanding and appreciation for the game – both in terms of what it could do for you, and for what you could do for it – again, balance.
    I won’t argue the point of possession (I think Pep’s ticky-tak style is a bit overrated but see his point), but I think you need to master both skills: possession AND risk taking. It’s great to bring the ball out of the back, but if that’s all you EVER do, then a good coach will devise a plan to attack that (think Kapernick’s slice & dice running style early onnwith the 49’ers: devastating at first, but coaches adapted and figured out a way to beat it). Pep has always had the world’s best players at his disposal (Barça, Bayern Munich) who could pull off his plan. I’d be interested to see if he could replicate that success at a lower-tier program with less-skillful players – just saying. 😉
    Again, I like the idea of developing players and having them LEARN the game, but I think a healthy dose of randomness (long passes, riskier play) can have its place at times as well. And lastly – make sure everyone is having fun – soccer still remains a GAME to be PLAYED. 😀

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    • Very good points, Rob. Thank you for contributing!

      One way to avoid too many losses is to simply move down a division (or two). Then teach them well and start to show success and then move up divisions as the players develop.

      If player development is the focus (for parents and coaches) then it shouldn’t matter which division you’re playing and learning.

      And the kids typically don’t either – they just want to get out there and play and learn and be with their teammates and parents. An eight or nine or ten year old doesn’t care about which division as long as their coach and the parents are positive and supportive.

      Btw, Albert Puig implemented a playing-from-the back mandate for ALL age groups, levels of play, and both genders at De Anza Force.

      I was skeptical about the ‘lower teams’, but a few months after this went into effect I officiated the fifth U12 or U13 boys team and they were playing it nicely from the back. I was very surprised.

      If they tried this against teams in higher divisions they would clearly not get the ball out from the back and the score would be 0:8 every time.

      Players and parents can choose not to learn to play that way, of course, and can join other clubs/coaches that fit their expectations better.

      For me there is no correlation between having fun playing the game and learning to play it well. A quality coach with the right perspective and supportive parents can make sure the kids have fun while also learning to play well….not just to win.

      Always exceptions, of course, and there are nuances with all this, but I felt it important to describe how easy it is to get pulled into ‘playing to win’ given all the pressure coaches and clubs are under in this business we call ‘youth soccer’.

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