The Fallacy of Wins and Losses in Youth Sports

Note: Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Los Angeles Sports & Fitness.

In a recent youth football championship game, one team trailed 6-0 when the coach ordered a trick play that is now a youtube sensation. After a penalty, he called out loudly that the defense had been off-side, and the official forgot to walk off the five yards. He yelled at his center to move the ball forward. The center stood up and handed the ball over his shoulder to the quarterback, which is a legal maneuver. The quarterback started to walk off the five yards and then sprinted past the unassuming defenders for the game-tying touchdown.

The play is perfectly legal. Despite perceptions, a center does not have to hike the ball directly between his legs to the quarterback; however, we use that technique because it puts the center in the best position to block after hiking the ball. Essentially, the team hiked the ball for the quarterback to run a sneak up the middle, and the coach’s instructions confused the defense who relaxed until it was too late.

The Internet loves the video, and most people think the coach is a genius. For someone obviously concerned with winning, he is quite clever. He used his craftiness and knowledge of the rules to win the game. However, if a parent is looking for a youth football coach, does his cleverness and youth championship make him a good coach for developing athletes?

Players and parents generally want to play on the winning team. All things being equal, people prefer winning to losing. The result may not be the most important factor in the child’s enjoyment, but people tend to be in a better mood after a win than a loss. More importantly, we equate winning teams with good coaches. If a coach wins most of his games or a couple youth league championships, we deem him a good coach, and parents want their child to play for a good coach.

Is playing for a winning coach the right choice developmentally? Like many things, it depends. However, choosing a coach simply on previous success is a poor way to judge a youth coach.

Winning at the youth level often requires a Peak by Friday mentality, which the above football coach illustrated. With this approach, the coach concentrates on game preparation during his practices. He simplifies the game through his offensive and defensive systems, and players learn to follow directions. This coach obviously practiced his trick play to insure that the lineman did not false start, the receivers stayed on the line, the center knew what to do and so on. From a developmental standpoint, is that a good use of limited practice time? Would more time learning the proper tackling technique or training basic agility enhance the players’ development more than learning one clever trick play?

At the youth level, the Peak by Friday mentality generally proves effective because the adult’s sophistication overwhelms young players’ skills. Players adapt to their coach’s instructions fairly quickly, and they can implement the one or two things that their coach asks of them. The team substitutes the inexperienced decision-making skills of a child for the strategy of an adult coach.

However, these extensive and explicit instructions narrow the players’ attention. Players stop their efforts to try new things or create novel solutions to game situations and instead look to their coach for answers. I watched a high school girls’ basketball game where the point guard crossed half-court and passed to the right wing on four consecutive possessions. On the first possession, she completed the pass. On the next three passes, the defense stole the ball and scored a lay-up on the other end. After four possessions, the coach called timeout and changed the play.

On the first of the three turnovers, the defense switched; rather than following the post player who set a down-screen for the wing, the post’s defender stayed on the wing and intercepted the pass. The point guard passed the ball as if she never saw the defensive player standing between her and her teammate. On the second and third turnovers, the post’s defender switched, but the wing’s defender followed the wing. The defense had two girls between the point guard and her intended target, and she still passed the ball as if she did not see the defenders fighting each other to get the steal. Dr. Daniel Simons, author of The Invisible Gorilla and an expert in selective attention, calls this inattentional blindness. The defenders were clearly within the point guard’s view, but she was blinded to the defenders because she was not attending to the defense; she was searching solely for her teammate at a specific spot to make the pass.

While the point guard was passing to the wing, the post player who set the screen was wide open two feet from the basket. However, rather than waving her arms, calling for the ball or cutting toward the ball to make a shorter pass, she was cutting across the lane to screen for someone else. She did not realize that she was wide open. Instead, she was running the play and setting a screen to get someone else open.

This happens frequently in youth sports. A soccer coach instructs his fullbacks to boot the ball as far as possible rather than pick up their eyes to find a teammate and pass the ball to his feet. Baseball coaches walk top hitters rather than risk their pitcher pitching to them. Basketball coaches run plays so certain players take specific shots. From a strategic standpoint, when winning is the goal, these decisions make sense. The coaches are trying to win the game, and often they do. However, do those wins transfer to improvement and development?

If a coach intentionally walks an elite hitter every time one comes to bat, what happens when the pitcher has to face the league’s top hitter with the bases loaded and he cannot walk him? The pitcher has no experience pitching against top hitters because the coach intentionally walked them previously. The player never learned to battle against the hitters because the coach used his strategy to reduce the likelihood of a mistake. However, by negating the possibility for a mistake, the coach sacrificed the player’s learning, and ultimately, that sacrifice will catch up to the player in some form, whether in the same season or maybe the following season when he plays for a different coach who does not walk batters and now he has to pitch to all the top hitters, but he lacks the mental or physical tools.

When coaches make the decisions for the players, the players do not learn to make decisions. In the basketball situation, the players were so focused on running their offense that they did not realize that they had a wide open lay-up if they looked. Their coach’s instructions created rigid thinking – rather than explore the environment and make the best decision, the players were stuck with only one possible response: running the play. Their thinking was inflexible, so they were unable to adapt to new situations, even though the new situation presented a fairly easy play to execute: a pass to a wide open player for a wide open shot close to the basket. The coach’s instructions narrowed their attention and led to the inattentional blindness.

When the coach’s strategy works, and the team wins, the coach is praised as a good coach. The basketball coach actually wins his league nearly every year and is considered by many to be a good coach. However, is his style good for winning, good for development or both?

When choosing a youth coach, the primary concern should be to find one that makes the game fun and focuses more on developing players’ skills than winning games. Developing decision-making skills in youth players is a long process. It does not happen before the first game. Therefore, these teams often struggle early in the season as they develop. The Peak by Friday approach is a short-term approach, so teams are prepared for the first game and usually start well. However, which is more important: the early season wins or the long-term development?

When seeking a coach, look past the record. Sometimes, a winning coach may win because of his misplaced priorities, while a coach with a poor record may be the one developing players who have more success in the future when their more flexible and adaptable thinking leads to better decision-making skills and overall performance.

By Brian McCormick
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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One Response to “The Fallacy of Wins and Losses in Youth Sports”

  1. Josh Littlejohn says:

    The boys team at my high school plays this way, and even though I think “inattentional blindness” contributes to a player passing the ball right to the defense on the wing, I think an even bigger factor may be that the players think the goal is to obey the coach and his/her play, while the coach’s goal for his team is to “a: pass it here, b: screen here, c: cut here— UNLESS (and this is the never emphasized part)a: the man is covered,b: there is no one there, or c: youll just be in the way.

    I play pickup with these boys on a regular basis. Unlike some dilusional parent, I KNOW these boys are way better IN REAL LIFE.

    When I watch their school games, I always use the phase “in real life”. “Theres no way Joey would have ever thrown that pass in real life” “Theres no way Steven wouldve passed up that open 3 in real life” etc etc.

    A couple of games ago, I left the stands and went and sat behind our bench so I could hear what was going on, and get more of a feel as to why they play so terribly. Here are a couple of examples of what happened:

    Our best 3 point shooter , who had already 3 3′s from the first half catches the ball on the wing, wide open, perfectly set up to catch and shoot, but doesn’t. All he hears is “UTAH 2! UTAH 2!” loud as possible coming from right behind him.. He hesitates clearly realizing that kids get pulled for shooting instead of running the play, he looks around for a second, tries to run UTAH 2, but that guys is covered, and he passes it anyway.

    Another time, I saw a boy catch a ball in stride with a clear lane to the basket…Of coourse he didnt know he had a clear lane, because all he hears is “KANSAS!, KANSAS!” loud as hell from the sideline.

    This happens the whole game!

    So I’m thinking to myself “Is it really that they are not seeing the dancing bear?” Maybe. But maybe its because they dont know/realize/dont have the freedom to realize the OVERALL goal of offense…pass here! (unless you can drive for a layup) screen here (unless theres no one there and you can turn around wide open) cut here! (unless someone already has the ball there and you’ll clog everything up)

    The coach has a goal, and the kids have a goal. The coach wants to score points, play good basketball, win the game yada yada…..but the kids goal seems to be to do what the coach says.

    Its not that they dont see the bear, but they’d rather take a shot at running the coach’s play (who is literally screaming at them to run the play) even if it means the bear steals it and takes it coast to coast.

    PS It seems our coach would rather lose and run some good plays than win, but surely thats not everywhere

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