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Winning is Everything: Myth vs. Reality

Winning-at-all-costs isn’t a priority for young athletes.

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” -- Henry Russell (Red) Sanders, former UCLA and Vanderbilt football coach

Is a “winning is everything” philosophy supported by research? No, not according to what my colleague, Dr. Ron Smith, and I reported in an article which was published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Contrary to what one might expect in a highly-competitive society, our study indicated that young athletes find playing for mastery-oriented coaches is far more important and has a bigger impact on them than a team’s won-loss record. In fact, in terms of athletes’ ratings of how much fun they had and how much they liked playing for their coach, our results showed that a mastery climate was about 10 times more influential than the team’s won-loss record.

Mastery vs. Ego Climates

A mastery climate is a learning environment that emphasizes skill development, personal and team success, maximum effort, and fun. This approach to coaching contrasts with an ego climate, in which the main goal is winning, and success is defined as being better than other players. We found that a win-at-all-costs ego climate was negatively related to athletes’ enjoyment and liking for their coach.

Research Supports a Mastery Climate

Many adults believe winning is the most important thing to kids. But our research provided convincing evidence that refutes this myth.

The study surveyed 268 boys and girls who participated in basketball programs operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation. The sample was predominantly white and middle class. The results indicated that players’ attitudes toward their coach were positively associated with the athletes’ perceptions of a mastery climate and negatively associated with perceptions of an ego climate.

Young athletes who perceived that their coach created a mastery climate:

  • Liked playing for their coach more.
  • Rated their coaches as more knowledgeable about the sport.
  • Thought their coach was better at teaching kids how to play basketball.
  • Had a greater desire to play for the coach again the following year.
  • Enjoyed their team experience more.

It’s particularly important to note that winning is relatively unimportant when it comes to youth sports. Athletes who played on more successful teams (those with better won-loss records) believed that their coach was more knowledgeable about basketball, but a winning team record was far less influential than a mastery climate.

The study replicated research we did with Little League Baseball back in the 1970s. This suggests that some things haven’t changed, because kids’ internal makeup and core values are still the same when it comes to playing sports.

Practical Implication

Our results can be used to teach coaches a powerful lesson: Winning isn’t everything, nor is it the only thing. The key to a positive athletic experience rests solidly on the ways coaches relate to athletes and on the achievement standards that they emphasize.

Do You Want to Learn More About Coaching and Parenting Young Athletes?

The Mastery Approach to Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun. To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website at