In youth sport, we often put too much focus on the concepts of winning or losing competitions. When that’s the primary focus of sport, we’re missing a valuable learning opportunity. As coaches, it’s time to start focusing on how our athletes act and react to wins and losses.
Wade Gilbert, PhD, a professor at California State University in Fresno and a Team USA Coaching Consultant, weighs in on practical ways you can teach your team to be more graceful post-game, whether they win or lose.
Coaches have the ability to influence athletes’ concepts of success and winning.
“Before the game, have the team come together and define what winning means. Take the scoreboard out of the equation: What does winning look like if there aren’t points?” asks Gilbert. “The team will come up with something creative, and it’s fun to revisit that after the game. Those conversations are much more positive than simply focusing on the scores. You should focus on how you play, not the outcome.”
Create rituals before competing
“Creating team rituals, whether you win or lose, is important. How players honor the game, their opponents, and each other is important,” says Gilbert. “At the end of the game, what does the team do? Develop a routine – come together, do the team chant, have a player of the game, thank the officials – create those rituals that happen win or lose so that athletes understand that it’s not about the result, it’s about how we play and act.”
Role model good behavior
If you want your athletes to be graceful after a competition, you need to act with grace as well.
“If you’re stomping around and yelling after a game that didn’t go well, your athletes will absorb that behavior and potentially mirror it,” says Gilbert. But if every game ends with you shaking the opposing coach’s hand, saying thank you to the referee, and high-fiving all of your athletes, that’s setting a more positive precedent. Create positive personal post-game rituals regardless of the final score so your team has a good role model for their own post-game behavior.
Praise process, not results
“Reinforce goals for the game beforehand—but try to focus more on creating goals that athletes can achieve even if they don’t win, like a certain number of passes,” says Gilbert. That way, at the end of the game, regardless of the score, you can still offer praise around the goals that were achieved, even when a win wasn’t. This helps athletes understand that losing doesn’t equate to playing poorly, and diminishes an unhealthy ‘must-win’ environment.
After every competition, whether your team won or lost, have your athletes list at least two things that went well and two things that could be improved on for next time. Gilbert notes that this strategy can be helpful in showing your athletes that even when they win, there is room for improvement, and even when they lose, they did things well.
Watch your language
“The team lost, they weren’t losers,” Gilbert says. “The language that we use is so important: Why use the word loser? You lost a game, you’re not a loser.” He explains that the way you talk to your athletes about the game, including the subtle differentiation between ‘loser’ and ‘losing,’ can make a big difference in how your athletes view themselves.
He also adds that this includes body language – your athletes will be able to tell that you’re upset if you’re throwing your hat, slumping down, or glaring at the umpire. Make sure that your body language matches what you’re saying, otherwise, your athletes won’t be able to trust you.
Reward good play, win or lose
“A lot of teams have something that they award after a game to the player of the game. I saw a team recently that only would do this ritual if they won the game – but to me, that’s not right,” says Gilbert. “You’re reinforcing that the only thing that matters is winning. And there could still be a kid who had the best game of the year, even if the team didn’t win. That’s missing the reason we have youth sports.”
Ultimately, by integrating the strategies above into the way you coach, your athletes will be equipped with the tools they need to be a respectful teammate, opponent, and leader – no matter the outcome of the game.