Development vs Winning: Actually, There Is No Such Thing

Also read the follow-up article to this post.

Outside of corruption, throwing the game, which has no place in this discussion, I submit that nobody deliberately plays to lose.

Specifically, I’m talking about football, less commonly known as soccer, and perhaps this discussion even applies to many different sports. But, as a player and coach, football is the beautiful game that I know best, so here goes.

Playing football, we would anticipate the team that makes the fewest mistakes ought to win – as in, the fewest mistakes both in and out of possession, from the kick-off until full-time. If so, then consistent quality performances are key because these should result in more opportunities to earn a win and prevent a loss. What’s more, as the reward for winning grows more lucrative, and the stakes are raised, players must all-the-more learn to develop that “consistent quality performance” on demand, under whatever pressure: effective decisions, executed at the proper moments, skillfully, every time, or at least as frequently as possible. Developing this “quality performance” consistency also demands that opponents earn victories rather than handing them the result, unimpeded, because now they’re challenged to execute just as consistently, if not just as flawlessly. As I say, no one competes to lose.

So, what of development and winning in light of all this? Too often, for me, these two ideas are falsely conflated into sides of what is truly a non-existent – or, at least, a very ill-conceived – debate. As ends-in-themselves, development and winning are typically deemed incompatible. Further, winning is then often vilified since winners produce losers while development is commended for being inclusive. At that point, I find the debate often sidetracks into competition versus fun, another false dichotomy, but in any case, the parameters are so muddled as to render all a meaningless waste of breath. For the sake of dispensing with the issue, I simply ask: why would we not reasonably expect to see fun in conjunction with competition? These are not oil and water, nor do they need to be, nor should they be deemed to be.

Football, the Game, can be played for fun, exhilaration, fitness, camaraderie, focus, perseverance, discipline, teamwork, all manner of virtues and benefits, yet all these on account of the very nature of the Game as a contest of opposition. And where one person finds things fun and enjoyable, another does not necessarily agree, yet who’s to say who is correct, if the Game has enabled all? All sorts of people find all sorts of fun in all sorts of things – who’s to say that finding competition to be fun is wrong, if only because it makes you squeamish? Just the same, if someone’s threshold for intense competitive drive is lower than another’s, can each still not enjoy playing with like-minded peers? In fact, just for instance, this is exactly why various youth and adult leagues categorize levels of play into (for ease of this discussion) gold, silver, and bronze tiers. Everyone must learn to play, and development (to whatever degree) will occur as they go. That implicates teammates, the quality of coaching, and other factors relating to a team or league’s motives for playing in the first place (i.e. gold vs silver vs bronze). Motive, however, does not change the nature of the Game, itself, or the nature of effective learning, development, coaching, and teaching.

As I see it, the issue is not Development for its Own Sake versus Winning for its Own Sake or even versus Development in order to Win. The issue is Development and Learning as a concept, altogether, period, because how else could you learn to play? And the more you play, the more you develop. Whether that development is good or poor is down to context, and a separate issue.

And when the arguments start, what’s really being debated, it seems to me, is how any one person simply wants to be “right” and demand that everyone else agree with what constitutes “successful” participation in the Game. Ironically, it’s a territorial argument over ideology. But to win an egotistical war suggests to me that we might better spend our efforts re-evaluating our culture and how we wish to treat other people.

Fair enough, people want to be “right.” We all have egos. But can we at least offer some basis from which to claim what the word “successful” can mean? So here goes.

Since losing a match always remains a possibility, no matter how consistent our quality performance might be, we ought to measure “success” as the degree to which a player or team has developed that consistent quality of performance (process) over time, at their corresponding level and motive for play, regardless of winning (product).

**I’ll specify, as I did above, that where wins are lucrative – such as in professional play – the stakes grow higher, and different debates will ensue about what “success” means. Yet that’s a commercial issue, relating to development and learning on the basis of peoples’ patience and tolerance for financial pleasure or pain: in other words, the two issues are not inherently related but coincidental: a crowd of supporters or sponsors are willing to pay to back the team for a season.**

For the Game, itself, we must let winning take care of itself because players control what they are able to control, under conditions that also include the pitch, the ball, the referee, the weather, health, fitness, and so forth. So what can we measure? Measurements ought to fall under player and team control, e.g. shots at goal, completed passes, tackles won, saves made, etc. Far from counteracting the importance of winning, such consistent measurements of quality performance provide feedback, i.e. if our pass completion is 90% successful around the penalty box, then maybe we don’t score because our shooting is infrequent or inaccurate. One might even argue that the statistical measurements we gather are less important than the ones we’ve overlooked.

In any case, successful players and successful teams identify strong and weak areas by regularly measuring consistent quality across a range of performance details, and they develop each area for consistency – which we anticipate will translate into more wins – because consistent quality performances usually translate into what can be measured as an “ongoing success.” Success now defines a degree of purposeful, committed, consistent hard work, which makes for more focused, more effective training. Developmentally, the more successful you are, the more often you can theoretically win – but if your opponents also train and measure, and respond better than you do, then guess what? That’s called competition.

Development and winning not only can but already do co-exist. And they always have. It’s people who separate them, falsely, perhaps because they want to win more than they want to earn wins – or, worse, perhaps because they merely want to win a territorial argument about development vs winning that never existed before someone’s ego dreamt it up.

Beyond on-field training and competing, development and learning should cover a range of areas that affect yet lie beyond the Game, e.g. health, fitness, nutrition, goal setting, mental preparation, personal responsibility. Coaches ought to take players beyond the Game, teaching them how to train, how to contribute to a team, how to compete at higher levels of skill and intensity, how to manage the dynamics and emotions of competition, and how to conduct themselves with personal integrity in all respects. Of course, the Game is included within the scope of these matters because that’s why we’re a team in the first place. And the range of these inclusions will comprise a more holistic football program. We implement and evaluate that program as we go, or we ought to.

Effective programs inevitably reveal the crux of commitment, either thanks to peoples’ dedication or on account of their inconsistency. Effective programs encourage trust and a shared pursuit of common goals. Where trust and commitment are maintained consistently and respectfully, a team and its members learn to measure quality and respond consistently, i.e. successfully. Such programs require time, discipline, and patience to learn, but the degree to which participants buy into the philosophy is met with concomitant developmental consistency, and again, one can expect winning to result more often than not, relative to the quality of the opposition. Likewise, individual people can take credit for this-or-that achievement only relative to their teammates, who are also active participants in the program.

Active participation should find team members applying complementary strengths by filling key roles on the path to team success. Individual contributions accumulate, and if these have been consistently defined by common goals and measured for consistent quality, “success” is more likely because people can envision it more clearly and pursue it more meaningfully.

Opponents, especially of equal or slightly higher abilities, likewise play a key role in a team’s pursuit of success since measuring consistent quality performances against them is, in one sense, what the Game – and what sport – is all about. Active involvement in a program unites a team, preparing everyone for more advanced challenges. Occasionally, a teammate might advance to more elite programs, and when a team member grows beyond the scope of the program, that is a team success that all of us can share.

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