For many years now, there has been a debate as to how competitive youth sports should be – if at all. Should the emphasis be purely on taking part? Or does winning and losing teach children valuable life lessons?

Any sport that children play should be about enjoying and learning the game, whether that may be football, rugby, cricket, tennis, or anything else. All new starters, whether children or not, must be allowed to develop without the pressure of expectation. Such freedom is what allows children to express themselves when playing, and this is what will ultimately keep them coming back session after session, game after game.

On the flip side, winning and losing is a part of sport. Sport by its very fabric is competitive and serves as the motivation for players to want to improve themselves. Children naturally play to win and while, especially at pre-teen ages, taking part and overall enjoyment should be the primary objective, players should also be encouraged to chase the win.

Learning to Win and Lose

There is a way to win and there is a way to lose. These are valuable lessons that children take into adult life and apply not just when playing sport, but in all aspects of their lives. Whether that be academically, professionally, or otherwise.

Losing builds character and, as many coaches are quick to remind their players, you either win or you learn. In defeat, there is the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, to dissect what went wrong, what could have been done better and what you would do differently next time. This applies to both individual and team sports and is a big part of the player’s development.

Learning how to deal with the disappointment of defeat is crucial because sport (and life) is filled with them, unfortunately. To appreciate the highs, you have to embrace the lows. Sport teaches us that even in defeat there can be positives to take, providing the foundation upon which to build and come back better next time. While winning isn’t everything, it is certainly one of the greatest motivations and goals for children to use to develop their ability.

When children taste victory, there are more lessons to learn. When a player or team loses, they have to accept that they lost to better opposition and that serves as motivation to better themselves. If you win, surely that means you don’t need to try as you have already proven you are the best? That is, of course, incorrect and with winning comes the need for self-discipline to maintain those levels (and to keep on wanting to improve).

When children win at sport, they must learn the correct way to win. That doesn’t mean gloating and rubbing it in, because that kind of thing tends to come back around. Being a good winner means being respectful to your opponent and not allowing the success to go to your head, remaining focused and not resting on your laurels.

Winning isn’t Everything

While winning and losing should not be taken out of youth sport, it is important to remember that winning isn’t everything and, sadly, that is a message that is lost on some. If you are involved in grassroots sport in any capacity, you will have likely come across a parent or coach that takes things more than a little too seriously, sacrificing the overall enjoyment of participants to chase the win.

A common sight is seeing a coach aggressively shouting at their team, bellowing out their orders rather than giving the players the freedom and confidence to try new things and make their own mistakes. The same coach is likely to choose what they perceive to be their strongest team, giving limited time to players they judge to have less ability, watching on and not developing. Not only is that poor coaching, but it is poor on a human level.

When there is a toxic atmosphere because winning is considered to be the most important thing above the enjoyment and development of the players, this is when children step away from a sport that they otherwise love. Even players part of a winning team may find that they aren’t enjoying themselves due to the overbearing pressure to win.

Friendly Competition

The middle ground between going all out to win and participation is the sweet spot when it comes to children’s sport. Encourage and celebrate achievements as they deserve to be recognised with certificates, trophies, and medals, but also remember to relay the importance of enjoying what they are doing and taking part in.

Children should always be encouraged to improve and be better than they were yesterday, but neither should they have it drilled into them that winning is everything. There are also victories to be found in defeat and lessons to be learned.