Youth soccer team hangs heads in defeat.

What a Coach Can Teach Kids About Losing

Do you like to win? Of course you do. It’s biologically ingrained in our competitive nature as humans. Whether it be in sports, work or life in general, we prefer winning over losing.

We are a competitive society and we think winning validates the work we put into something. But what about losing? Are all losses terrible? I’m here to tell you that losing a game is not a terrible thing. In fact, there’s quite a lot a coach can teach kids from a loss.

The Benefits of Winning

There have been numerous studies about the psychological and biological effects of winning. Simply put, these studies conclude that winning makes us feel good. It gives positive reinforcement to our actions and motivates us to win again.

From the standpoint of youth sports, this can translate into fun and confidence.

There are many health and social benefits to youth sports, but kids really start playing because they want to have fun. When a team is winning a game and the kids feel more free to experiment and take chances, they have fun. If kids have fun, they stay in the sport longer and have more time to realize the health and social benefits sports have to offer.

Second, winning will build confidence in kids. Many kids start playing sports lacking self confidence and assertiveness. Having some success via competition will reassure them that they are strong, capable individuals. This will help them so much as they travel through life.

So Winning Everything, Right?

Wrong! It’s important, but it’s not everything.

Soccer trophy raised high in the air.
The goal of an athletic competition is to win, but it’s shouldn’t be our singular goal as coaches.

In sports, winning is the goal of each competition. If your team doesn’t go on the field with the goal of playing their hardest in an attempt to win, then why bother? That said, you’ll find coaches have many different views on winning in youth sports.

There are the coaches that seem to be singularly focused on winning. They leave some kids in the dust in their pursuit to have the best record. These coaches will do whatever it takes to ensure a win. This might include the use of “bush league” tactics or even bending the rules.

Then there is the coach that tells parents they don’t care about winning. These coaches feel their role is to develop kids’ skills or to just have fun. Those are both great goals to have, but winning plays a crucial part in the level of validation and fun kids will derive from the game.

As I’ve mentioned in several posts, we should strive to be balanced coaches taking the best from winning, development, and fun to be successful. And to measure your success as a coach not by your win record, but by player satisfaction.

The Hidden Goodness of a Loss

It may seem to go against our very nature, but there can be definite value in a loss. Kids need to learn that not everything in life will go in their favor. It’s unreasonable to expect that. Athletic competitions are excellent opportunities to learn how to deal with these situations.

Consider a team that finds themselves in a tightly contested match. Part way through the game the team is behind. This is an excellent opportunity for the kids to learn about mental fortitude. It will take determination to come from behind and win the game. They need to learn that in life, as in the game, they have the ability to change the outcome.

Sometimes, a game will not be close and your team will be completely outmatched. This can be a very disheartening situation to be in. It’s very easy for kids to hang their heads and mentally give up. Even when a game is completely out of reach, you want to teach your kids to continue to give their best effort. This helps them learn that when things are bleak, there’s still a way forward.

Behavior After a Loss

There’s also lessons that to be learned after the loss. How does your team react this situation? You don’t want your players to be mad at the other team or even at themselves. They should respectfully congratulate the other team on a good match. Sportsmanship is a life lesson that doesn’t seem to come naturally and must be learned.

Closeup of boy crying.
A loss doesn’t have to be a totally negative experience. There are lessons to be learned in losing.

Likewise, you want your team to be able to reflect on their own performance and find the positive in what they did. Even in a blowout loss, they ought to be able to find some bright spots from the game. Focusing on the positive will put everything into different perspective.

So We Should Want to Lose?

Am I suggesting that you as a coach should want your team to lose? I don’t think I’d go that far. Like everyone else, I prefer winning. My team starts each game with the expectation that they will do their best toward winning the game.

Kids will continue to play sports when they are satisfied with and a portion of that satisfaction comes from winning. If they consistently get beat, they can get demotivated and quit.

That said, I think as coaches and players, we need to realize that losing WILL happen. And that there are things we can learn from a loss. Rather than spending the next few days stewing about it and thinking about what we could have done differently, embrace what it has taught you.

Example

As an example, I will refer to a 10U boys soccer team that I recently coached through an undefeated season. In fact, counting the prior season, they had gone on a 30 game win streak.

It was the first time I’d ever had a team that was undefeated. It was absolutely a huge accomplishment for my players, but they had to grow a lot along the way. I recommend you read the full article about what we learned from an undefeated season.

Following that fantastic run and championship victory, my team moved up to 12U. We became a younger team in a higher age division using larger fields and bigger teams.

Wouldn’t you know it? The first game of the 12U season we lost. In fact, we lost by four goals. This was a very uncomfortable place for my players to be. I even saw a few tears after the game.

I certainly would have liked for them to win that first game, but the loss helped bring them back to reality. It made them stop and think about still showing good sportsmanship despite their disappointment.

We also lost our second game of the season. This one was a much closer match and we lost by only one goal in the final minutes. The team did a much better job of accepting this loss.

In many ways, I think having those two losses right away in the season were good. Not only did it help take away the pressure of keeping the winning streak alive, but the kids were able to learn from it as players and as people. They were able to apply this learning in games going forward and came back with wins in the next two games.

Your Role as a Coach

As a youth sports coach, you fill a special role. Not only are you there to teach the kids the game, but also to teach them life lessons. They will look to follow your lead and will mimic behaviors. If you are a poor sport or can’t accept a loss, neither will they.

The next time you find your team with a loss, make sure you do everything you can to use it as a learning opportunity for the team. They’re here to play, you’re here to help them grow – in many ways.

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