To Be Honest, I Don’t Care Who Won

Some tips for supporting young athletes.

Posted Nov 15, 2018

Recently, I find myself becoming increasingly disheartened when I ask athletes, particularly those of a young age, how was your race/game/match, and “I won” or “I lost” is the given response… Such a remark tells me very little about the actual performance, but does reveal some interesting features of the individual’s mindset.

Such a response seems to be symptomatic of several things.  Firstly, the athlete believes that the outcome is what I am primarily seeking (as clearly this is what we value) and, secondly, there is an internal perception that, above all else, the outcome is the main gauge of success.  Some subtle changes in the feedback that we provide and questions that we ask can trigger significant improvements in engagement, performance, and overall satisfaction for individuals involved in sport.

What is the first question that you ask?

“Hi, did you win?”  Does this sound familiar?  Every day this will be the first question asked in almost every car as parents and kids leave gymnasiums and sports fields all over the country.  There seems to be quite the disconnect between the value that we place on winning and the fundamental reasons that we believe our children and young people should participate in sport.  For instance, when I ask coaches or parents at conferences why they are interested in their children taking part in sport, the common responses are things like the development of confidence, resilience, motivation, making friends, and simply, to have fun.  If the question above does sound familiar – think about the message that it subtly conveys.

Next time you come across someone who has just finished a competition, try asking “Hey, tell me about your game?  Did you have fun?  How did the team perform?”  Such questions reinforce that the controllable elements of performance are the truly important aspects.  Whilst some might argue that the above questions are more suitable for young athletes, I can assure you that the questions that I ask high-performance athletes are very similar: Can you describe the race? How was your preparation? Tell me about your mindset on the start-line.  A common theme connecting all of those examples is that the questions are all focused on elements that are within an athlete’s control.

If they did lots of good things and lost… be supportive, don’t be disappointed

When you are overtly disappointed with a loss as a parent or coach, it tells the athletes that you are either disappointed for them, or disappointed in them.  Either way, it suggests failure.  If a young team comes up against a better team and prepares well, competes with belief, and exhibits positive communication, then is that not something to be proud of and celebrate?  When considering the aforementioned reasons that we encourage sport participation – this is exactly what we are looking for.  On the other hand, if a team beats an opponent that they clearly should have without giving 100 percent of their physical and mental capabilities, then is that necessarily success?

Discuss and define success

From my experience, going through the process of discussing and, ultimately, defining success is worthwhile, and, in all likelihood, one of the more important exercises that an athlete/team goes through.  This helps athletes connect to a deeper purpose that goes beyond winning (or avoiding losing!) and is something to use to gauge progression and development.  When done well, and reinforced often, it increases the likelihood of success as it becomes something that is within our control.  This provides athletes with a sense of autonomy and freedom that is much more conducive to optimal performance and enjoyment.

I always know that I am on the right track with an athlete when they come in to my office after a competition and they spend a significant amount of time describing various elements of their preparation and performance before they, at some point, refer to the outcome.  This only seems to occur once an athlete has developed a strong awareness of and commitment to performance- (opposed to outcome-) focused goals, and is surrounded by a social environment that nurtures such an emphasis.

Have fun out there!