Winning's not everything: How to convince parents

By Mike Woitalla

Coaching young players to increase their chances of excelling at the higher levels can often mean losing games. So how can coaches convince parents not to confuse scorelines with player development progress?

Here are a couple of methods that can help coaches show parents how to look for improvement without focusing on wins and losses:

A “Parent Pregame” is how U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Education Dave Chesler addressed the issue during his long career of youth coaching.

“When I was directing clubs, I expected all the coaches to do it, and it was awkward for them at first,” says Chesler. “When the referee is checking equipment and checking in the players, I would gather our parents around and I would give them the Parent Pregame. Very simple things. …

“I’d review the major topics we’ve covered … ‘This week we worked on trying to pass shorter, play it out from the goalkeeper, and build the game from back -- because ultimately that’s good for their development as they get older. And it includes everyone in the game. They’re all participating -- the people defending, from the people in midfield, etc.'"

The parents now understood why the team might give up goals -- because they’re trying to learn to play in a manner that’s the most successful at the highest levels.

“It’s not always warm and fuzzy,” Chesler says. “There’s always the parent who thinks they know more. At least, you’ve taken away the guesswork and provided them with something they can grasp onto and really focus their emotion and energy toward.

“I’d provide them with tools to encourage the kids. ‘When the goalkeeper has the ball, and you see the goalkeeper try and pass or play to one of those defenders, it would be great if you would encourage them because that’s exactly what we worked on.’”

With older teams -- 13s, 14s -- Chesler made a habit of handing out a target sheet to the players at the end of the last training before a match. He’d give parents a copy so they knew exactly what the targets were for the game. It’d be a very concise summary of what the team had worked on in training.

“There was information provided for the parents every game,” he says. “Not for them to discuss or debate from a technical standpoint, but just to support their kids.

“If you don’t do that, you leave it completely open-ended and now the atmosphere is such that a parent can make assumptions and really be critical of things that aren’t even relevant to what you’re trying to do.”

With younger players, the targets would be mostly technical.

“When I coached a 9-year-old team, it would be, for example, work on how to prepare the ball,” he says. “We’re going to try and prepare it so we keep it moving, so we don’t just stop it or kill it. I felt it was important to distinguish between trapping and redirecting -- a higher level skill, more challenging.”

When a young player starts acquiring the skills of a good first touch that sets up her next move, it’s a major sign of progress. When parents see their children succeeding more frequently at that during a game, they realize the coach has helped the players improve even when the scores favor the opponent.

With older players, the targets could be more tactical, like group defending.

For Chesler, the Parent Pregame is part of a triad that keeps a youth team on track: “I call it PCP -- Parent-Coach-Player all being connected.”

One of the recommendations from Stan Baker in his book, “Our Competition is the World,” for helping parents comprehend a team’s long-term development philosophy is creating a stat sheet to gauge the team’s definition of success.

The idea is to track accomplishments by jotting down how many times the team accomplishes goals such as:

* Plays out of the back successfully.
* Plays through the lines (backs to midfield).
* Has a sequence of 7 passes.
* Changes point of attack.
* Creates 2v1 situations.
* Crosses the ball from the endline.
* Chances created.
* Goals scored.

“I recommend the stat duty is assigned to various parents each game for monitoring,” Baker writes. “Buy a few of the small clipboards and you’ll be ready to go. This will be a shared assignment so all parents get a chance to take part. … Shifting the focus from winning onto the various aspects of the game that you are trying to improve on will help redefine success.”

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at

10 comments about "Winning's not everything: How to convince parents ".
  1. Terry Ellis, July 19, 2013 at 2:13 p.m.

    Love the clipboard idea! It would have been very helpful to get some of the louder parents involved in something positive. Wish I would have thought of it!

  2. uffe gustafsson, July 19, 2013 at 10:01 p.m.

    Mike I have to give you kudos on great subjects and articles you written latly.
    Wish coaches and parents would subscribed to this news letter as in all parents and coaches.
    They been right on every time.
    So informative and giving me a pause too think of how I deal with being a parent and looking at coaching, I think we all need to step back and see the big picture and then reevaluate how we go about teaching our girls and boys.
    Really appreciate your writing.

  3. Kent James, July 20, 2013 at 5:03 p.m.

    I echo both comments above. I just hope many people involved in youth soccer have access to these columns. The idea of meeting with the parents prior to each game to tell them what you're working on is brilliant, though it demands a fair amount from the coach. It might be more achievable to meet with the parents prior to just home games, or every few weeks; even just before the first game to let them know what you're working on for the season would be an improvement in many places. Getting the parents on-board and involved would certainly build team cohesion and should improve parental input.

  4. Martha Diop, July 21, 2013 at 12:25 a.m.

    I was blessed that the first article I ever read about youth soccer was from Mike Woitella, and ever since I have always enjoyed the consistency in showing how people have made it an adult game and never let the kids just be kids
    I don’t know about the part of the country where you live, but what I have seen over the years is that all games kids play, from the age of 8 to 18 have a stake (leagues, tournament, trophies, divisions, relegation, ejections of teams for poor performance, etc.)
    It does not seem intuitive to live in a system where winning is everything and at the same time, expect make parents believe that winning is not everything.
    Everyone, from Club president down to the player is madly anxious to run to the league website every Monday (or late Sunday) to find who beat who, and what their fate will be.
    No one wants to take a chance of losing, drop division (relegation), and eventually be kicked out and see team disbanded (it happens quite a lot).

    Would Mike’s suggestions be implementable only after we put an end to overly competitive soccer for the youth players?. Why can’t all the games from U9 to U14 be all friendly games, and not the completely result oriented exercise further entertained by structures like and the lineks? Can’t the competition be brought in at the age when winning is everything (of course, that stage will eventually happen)

  5. R2 Dad, July 21, 2013 at 1:22 a.m.

    Martha, other countries have managed to emphasize individual skills and soccer IQ in lieu of running and gunning. I just spoke with a parent who returned from italy and they were amazed that the coaches there stressed ball control and rarely wasted their coaching time with scrimmages. So it is possible to change the mentality of the parents and thus the kids, but we first need to run out of parents who know nothing of the game. Once we have parents railing that "back in the day" when they played they loved the game but all they could do was play kick and run and were thus cut out of advanced/competitive/highschool teams and over their dead body will their children be allowed to play kick and run, will things improve. I'd say another 15 or 20 years from now, and the soccer culture MAY change enough--if we're lucky. In the mean time, move to Spain.

  6. Kent James, July 21, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.

    Martha, you're right. It's a shame that other sports seem to be emulating the professionalization of youth sports that soccer poineered (paid coaches, money making tournaments, high stakes games, etc.). I would recommend pushing for in-house programs up through U10 (with perhaps professional coaching clinics for skills once a week). In house you can control and make non-competitive. The problem in Western PA is that the clubs are so small, that once the kids get to be 9 or 10, they've gotten bored playing with the same kids, and want new competition. So then you get to travel, and into all the issues you raised. And in travel, we have 2 levels; cup soccer, which is high stakes, professional coaches, etc, and regular travel (volunteer coaches, much less $). The competition in travel ranges from really bad (unathletic beginners) to pretty good, with variety being the common denominator. But good players really need to play cup to continue to grow. The problem there is that most of the cup teams recruit more than they develop players, and those teams start to collapse as good players leave losing teams (so by U18, there may only be 4-6 teams in Western PA). An alternative is to develop pick-up games for kids U14 to Adult (you could do it younger, but U14s can play with the adults, so it's easier to organize). Pickup is a wonderful way for players to learn in a non-competitive environment. And the advantage of promoting pick-up is that you don't have to make other people stop what they're doing, since resistance to changing the high-stakes system can be pretty fierce.

  7. Martha Diop, July 22, 2013 at 1:03 p.m.

    Maybe it is not just a choice between fierce competition and pick-up.
    I think the issue is less about winning at all cost or not than about what you use as a criteria for winning
    Suppose an organized league where the participating coaches decide among themselves that winning will be decided upon how many times a team start attack from the backline or how many successful crosses, or how many shots on goals, how many times a full back was in attacking position on the left wing, etc.

    If those conditions were set, honestly I really would not mind a team trying to win at all cost by trying to do all those things that go way beyond just trying to put the ball in the net (maybe by just booting long balls forward)

    Of course, people who want the other side of fierce competition based only on goal scoring, at the expense of playing real soccer, could continue to have their own system, nothing wrong with that. But we would have ours that will definitely more conducive to player development

  8. Kent James, July 23, 2013 at 7:32 p.m.

    Martha,your suggestion is creative, but I don't think you need a league to adopt it to make it work (and I think it will actually hurt it to adopt it at the league level). At the league level, you'd have to get organizers to agree on what to focus on (good luck on that one!), and the focus probably should change (as the season goes on). But in a less competition oriented system, a coach can define the goals for the team (using the criteria you suggested), which I think is both easier to implement and better. As a player, I hated it when the coach put artificial restrictions on us (even as I knew they were good for us). So while I agree with your goals, I think you have to be careful about how you implement these things.

  9. Martha Diop, July 24, 2013 at 3:36 p.m.

    The only problem with pickups is that there is nothing to win (kids love to win). It is just the current system makes everyone focus on the wrong side and definition of winning
    When I say league, I was really not talking about a big organized league (the more people, the more difficult to make them agree on anything).
    So I was actually thinking about just 6 to 8 coaches (relatively small number) who all espouse the idea.
    It would not be difficult for these 8 coaches, who think alike, to agree on soccer oriented criterias (as suggested and described by Mike Woitalla) –They could agree to have just one criteria per game, or multiple ones.
    This way, the kids will actually win something, but the difference is they win based on being recognized as playing better soccer than the opponents. The results could still be posted on a website, to see which teams is on top of the standings (probably there would be no columns for goals against or goals for, etc.)
    If other coaches/parents like the idea then the group could grow to 10 teams, then 16, etc. Enough to run a league. It would be perfect doing this during the off-season, so that parents could still “enjoy” the other type of soccer where kick and run gives you the title and the fame we are sadly used to and that warranted Mike’s article in the first place
    What a crazy idea!

  10. Kent James, July 28, 2013 at 3:38 p.m.

    Martha, I agree that kids like to win. But even pick-up has it's winners; whether you keep score for the day, school your opponent, score a great goal, etc. I think the day to day challenge of trying to beat your opponent is a vital part of sport. Pick-up also focuses on the core of the game; people and a ball. It gets away from parents, leagues, standings, uniforms, etc. It forces kids to be flexible (field size, goals, etc. all varying with the number of people and available space). It also engenders a certain etiquette (since there are no refs, people have to respect the game or it breaks down). Your idea certainly has merit (and simply coordinating with your opposing coach would make it realistic to do on a game by game basis), but I think pick-up has even more value.

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