Updated: Jul 15, 2022
By Marcelo Antonelli
This topic has generated heated discussions among youth coaches, and even parents, here in the United States and around the world.
Often these discussions occur on social media, with short comments expressing strong opinions.
In this article, I will attempt to address this topic from a variety of points of view before presenting my conclusions.
The mistake of the binary approach
To begin with, it should be clear that this topic should not necessarily be approached in a binary way. That is, coaching to win or to develop are not necessarily opposing poles. However, these goals do not always go together: some decisions may emphasize one over the other. Therefore, the decisions made by parents, coaches, and directors should take into consideration the consequences of each approach.
Context matter: What are the goals?
As a coach, likely have your own methods, philosophy, and goals.
But do they match your players’ and parents’ goals?
While the dream of becoming a college or professional athlete may be common for many, this is not necessarily the true goal of players or parents enrolling in competitive clubs, recreational clubs, social projects, or any other organization that allows a child to regularly play. Motor, cognitive, psychosocial, and socio-affective development may be some of the main reasons why children are inserted in a sports training context. From the perspective of those who play, who may also practice other activities/sports, the motivation may be simply to have fun, seek physical fitness, be close to a friend, or even the pleasure of competition and the "state of play."
Therefore, besides the coach's own philosophy between training to win or to develop, it is important to consider the environment in which one finds themselves. A talk, questionnaire, or any other appropriate tools to access the goals of your players and parents may give you useful information.
Develop for life or for soccer?
This will not be the central theme of this article, but it is worth pointing out that when discussing coaching “to develop,” this development may be only related to developing “playing capacities.” But it can also be a reference for developing a great variety of traits and capacities not necessarily linked to sports. Social skills, moral values, problem-solving abilities, and critical views are some of the many possible goals that could be related to development.
“Developing to play” or “developing for life” may or may not walk the same path. But when they do, it increases the value of the pedagogical project, adding value that goes beyond the athletic sphere.
Methods and style of play
Let us now get more specific and discuss training methods and style of play, since they are often the first items to be considered in this “coach to win or to develop” discussion.
For example, in the United States, the country where I live, there is traditionally a very direct style of play, possibly due to historical influence from other sports such as American soccer. Perhaps because of this, a good number of coaches from other countries who work here (and there are many, predominantly European) defend the idea that in order to develop players, it is necessary to have a possession style of play.
I have heard from several coaches: "I don't care if I lose every game. What I want is to develop my players. So, we never kick the ball, we always play short from the back." While this premise seems admirable, there are many "pitfalls" that may be associated with this process. Among them:
A) Conducting all trainings through specific roles to achieve a certain model of play. While "role-specific" training is often perceived by parents as something related to an effective training methodology, it runs the risk of incurring early specialization, limiting player development.
B) Always playing short takes away from the athlete’s power of reading the game and making decisions, thus limiting development
C) Always playing short will allow certain players many repetitions, while other players, farther away, will participate much less and only receive the ball in certain situations, not being stimulated to deal with the ball arriving in other directions or distances.
In other words, the idea of this example is to illustrate that even when a coach says that he or she "trains to develop," one needs to be careful to make sure that the methods employed meet the requirements of learning windows, for example by presenting high variability in the early years.
Motivation and choice of competitions
In the previous item, we stated that some coaches don’t mind losing because they are aiming for player development. But what about the players? Do they understand that defeat is a price to be paid for "development?" And is that what they want?
Even if teams have players determined to pursue professionalism in the sport, for the vast majority of athletes, their career will be over before they reach adulthood. So, is it worth it to stop winning in order to "develop" a career that will not exist for most players? Furthermore, what are the effects on a player's relationship with the sport and the consequences of this relationship for staying in the sport? Does defeat reduce motivation and drive players away from the sport?
Children themselves, in street soccer (unorganized play), often change the rules or teams seeking to balance matches in order to keep everyone motivated. Getting used to winning or losing can be discouraging.
The level and frequency of the competitions chosen can also have a great influence on the way the team is trained and on the athlete's relationship with the sport. In some cases, it is up to the coaches or directors to determine which leagues and divisions in which the teams will participate. A very difficult division can generate pressure to achieve results and affect the team's training in such a way that "shortcuts" are taken to achieve good results, but that can negatively affect development. On the other hand, a division that is too easy can negatively affect the development of certain skills and help create "bad habits" in athletes.
Team development versus individual development
“Developing the team” and “developing the player” is another important point to consider in this discussion.
When a coach takes over a team and knows that an important tournament is coming up, it is understandable that the focus is on team organization, seeking to optimize the processes during the game in pursuit of results. While developing a model of play, players will develop, as they will have to learn the necessary functions to put the tactical plan into practice. But this development will be limited to the functions that the players will have to perform within that model.
When thinking about individual player development, the attention often is on the "fundamentals" of soccer much of the time or, in other words, technical actions with the ball.
The principles of the game (e.g. width, depth, penetration, etc.) have also been emphasized by many coaches, usually from the perspective of working on tactical aspects of the team (e.g. how to switch the side of the attack, how to compact defensively, etc.).
However, few sessions emphasize individual and group tactics, which can help players solve numerous “problems” that the game presents, increasing the autonomy and effectiveness of the players without dependence on a certain formation or style of play.
The result is often an imbalance during player development: team tactics and individual techniques receive much more attention than individual and group tactics.
Considering my experience at high-level futsal, where individual and group tactics are generally highly developed, or at least required, I can't watch a soccer game without paying attention to how so many players have trouble solving problems during a match without relying exclusively on physical or technical abilities. When coaching competitive teams with players between 15 and 17 years old, who have been competing in the sport for almost 10 years, it is hard to accept that they are not familiar with, or have not optimally developed some individual tactical skills, such as, fixating a defender, floating, closing pass lines, or delaying offensively.
This occurs because working on game logic, developing creativity, and solving problems through individual or group tactics, undoubtedly does not produce results as quickly as organizing the team. Therefore, working on prioritizing the development of the individual would fit into coaching to "develop" much more than coaching "to win.”
Let's now shift the focus from the technical-tactical discussion to approaching the topic from other perspectives starting with the management of a team, club, or association. Management encompasses a variety of aspects, such as the management of substitutions and even the application of disciplinary sanctions, which can elucidate a clear difference between training to win or to develop. In this sense, only using the best players during matches, as well as not applying disciplinary actions because of the importance of a player, are examples of the priority given to winning over development.
Autonomy, resilience, and investigative skills
If we are truly considering the development of the player, it is crucial to develop skills related to aspects such as investigation (learning about a subject), resilience, and autonomy, which can, in the long run, help teams win games and maintain group cohesion.
However, the immediate effects of these abilities tend to be smaller than the focus on the team's organization and game model. Considering that the coach often has few hours in the week, it is common that the priority is to optimize the physical, technical, and tactical development. Thus, we have another example of focusing on the player instead of the team, which can be another factor more related to development than to the search for results (at least in the short term).
Capitalism, Pay to Play, and MLS Youth Academy Teams
We cannot fail to consider capitalism within this theme. From the coaches' point of view, those who make their living from soccer must have as a central objective of preserving their job or professional ascension. Very often, short-term results will be the main element by which a coach will be evaluated. While a coach may be judged by the results of a single match or weekend, it may take years to evaluate if the coach is actually developing players that will be successful in the future. It is evident that each scenario has its own particularities, but the situation of each coach interferes with his priorities and decisions.
From the "system" perspective, considering the pay-to-play format, we need to consider that soccer clubs compete with one another, and the players are the clients. While on one side pleasing the client may bring quality, on the other hand, it may negatively affect the development process: decisions with the priority of serving the customer, may not be the best in terms of developing the same client, or the ones that he or she is in contact with.
If we think about youth academies, with programs fully funded, in general, the coach does not have so much pressure to "please the client," and this kind of pressure is usually linked to the cases of very prominent players that the club does not want to lose. But the pressure on the coaching staff for results is still present, and it may overweight decisions that could result in an ideal path for development.
"Training to win or to develop" is certainly a complex discussion, which can be analyzed from a multitude of perspectives. The scenarios where a coach may be inserted may be very different, each requiring a particular way to be approached.
Ideally, most coaches will aim to create a great development process that will lead to obtaining good results, and therefore, achieving the goals of both developing and winning. In practice, a great variety of factors can positively or negatively influence this.
In this article, we have cited some examples of these factors, emphasizing that many other aspects that were not mentioned here may also influence decisions related to the balance of "coaching to develop" versus "coaching to win." We hope this brief text helps those involved, whether players, parents, coaches, or directors, to reflect on the complexity of the subject and to seek a broad vision of their own work environment and the scenario in which they find themselves. This will allow them to participate in this process (whether in a leadership position or not) in a manner consistent with the objectives and needs of those involved.