Celebrating success doesn't mean you have to gloat about it too

Last Sunday I coached a game, and I reffed a game. Both results saw clear winners, with lots of goals scored. Both matches had their moments of pride and joy for individual players, and the teams as a whole. Yet, from my point of view, not all of those moments of pride and joy were positive. At the risk of imposing my own codes of conduct on the wider world (regular readers may be used to this by now), I'd like to discuss the different ways we have of celebrating success in youth soccer.

In the morning, the girls U-14 team I coach played against a team we expected to beat. Although we play the game on the ground as much as possible, I've also been encouraging the team to attack the ball more at corner kicks. Rather than shying away from the ball, they should maybe try getting their heads on it from two yards out. To that end, I introduced a €20 incentive for the first player to score a headed goal, which has become a running gag among the team. (A $50 reward on the girls team I coached in the USA for seven years, with the same proviso, went unclaimed.)

As usual, in the course of the game we missed a couple of prime opportunities to score headed goals, through hesitancy alone.

Exasperated, I stood up and demonstrated to the bench the perfect fresh-air header. I then subbed one of the girls on the bench into the game and, moments later, she scored our first-ever headed goal, direct from a corner kick. Cue much laughter, and congratulations to the player, followed by mockery at my expense after the game as I handed over the cash. Though I'd have willingly paid double for the moment.

Also in this game — in the final minute, our opponents were awarded a penalty kick for a clear handball. We were leading 7-2 by that point, so the PK was of no consequence. As the opposition player placed the ball wide of the goal, the noise from my bench was way too loud and I ordered them to tone it down. It wasn't like our goalie had pulled off a spectacular save, and it wasn't as if a 7-3 scoreline would have made any difference to our day. It looked more like we were mobbing a player just for missing. Sometimes you can have a touch too much team spirit.

On to Game Two on Sunday evening, a girls U-17 game I was refereeing. The home team ran out clear 8-0 winner. In the second half, there were some niggly moments between players following deliberate fouls (from both teams), though despite a couple of lectures I didn't show any cards. At the end of the game, the heavily defeated team sat around their bench to hear a few words from their coach. The winners, meanwhile, gathered in a circle a few yards away and began to loudly chant and cheer while jumping up and down in a huddle.

I've noticed this kind of celebration a lot lately, at all levels of soccer. It used to be reserved for winning a title, or maybe reaching a cup final. That's fine. But for hammering an inferior opponent in a routine league encounter, who barely came close to your goal the entire game? When they're sitting right next to you and the coach is trying to pep them up after a colossal defeat? In this context, it seems excessive, unnecessary and wholly unsporting.

On the other hand, the losing team's goalkeeper shone a different light on the day. She wasn't the world's most natural shot-stopper, but made numerous decent saves throughout the course of the match. No matter how many goals her team lay in arrears, every time she stopped a shot or caught the ball, her face broke into a huge smile before she punted the ball upfield.

It's an obvious point, but there are good ways to celebrate good play. Smile when you do something good. Don't rub your losing opponent's faces into the dirt, even if you think they deserve it. By all means, go nuts if your team scores a last-minute winner in a tight game. Enjoy the moment — spontaneous exuberance is a fine and natural thing. But spare a second too to console the loser on the floor and shake their hand. We've all been there. There's no glory in gloating in someone's face, as even Lionel Messi admitted after Argentina's penalty shootout win over the Netherlands in last year's World Cup quarterfinal.

"I didn't like what I did, I didn't like what happened after," Messi said over a month later, referring to having cupped his ear at Dutch coach Louis van Gaal after scoring a penalty in the 73rd minute, and gestures he made at the desolate Dutch players after the shootout. "These are moments of nervousness and everything happens very quickly."

It was a belated acknowledgment that, even at the very highest level, you can lose your dignity in triumph at exactly that moment when you should be making the most of it.

11 comments about "Celebrating success doesn't mean you have to gloat about it too".
  1. R2 Dad, May 5, 2023 at 7:45 p.m.

    Nice column, Ian. You do not seem to be the kind of coach that would allow your parents to run wild. Please sprinkle in those details next time (if there is space), since readers need to see how parents should/n't behave, too. It's not just coaches and players that need socializing.

  2. frank schoon, May 6, 2023 at 8:57 a.m.

    To me, celebrating is winning a game by having the players exhibit what they have worked on as a team and as individuals. But to win because we were stronger or just better is a meaningless win for me and a total waste of time. Winning has to be taking into account with player improvement for that is the most important aspect. Unfortunately, too many coaches are more into winning and that's why you see at the highest level of play here players making mistakes of U16 or younger. 

  3. Mike Lynch, May 6, 2023 at 10:54 a.m.

    Thanks for sharing Ian. Unfortunately, sporting behavior is fast becoming the exception, not the norm. Coaches are in the best position to lead, just as you did with your team. For our staff, players and parents, my direction is simple: humility in victory, grace in defeat, sportsmanship and ethics always ... regardless of the score, our performance, the performance of the referee, the behavior of opponent, etc. Control the controllables.  

  4. Frans Vischer, May 6, 2023 at 12:21 p.m.

    In your reference to Messi's comments following Argentina's shootout win over Holland, I would think a Messi apology for Argentina's deplorable behavior during the game, including Messi's, might be more in order. 

  5. James Madison, May 6, 2023 at 3:55 p.m.

    Not to mention there are things that can and shold be done, without insulting the opposing team, toi avoid "blowouts, i.e., wins by more than five-goal margins.

  6. Kent James replied, May 8, 2023 at 11:41 a.m.

    Shooting low percentage shot (from distance) is a good way to avoid running up the score.  It's fun for the team (most players like to shoot), it you're playing hard (so it's respecting the other team), but while you may occassionally score, it limits how often you do it.  

  7. Kent James, May 8, 2023 at 11:44 a.m.

    When you celebrate everything as much as you can, it cheapens the celebration. Celebrations should be proportionate.  One phrase I like in this situation is "act like you've been there before."  

  8. John Polis, May 8, 2023 at 12:56 p.m.

    Good points all around. Reminds me of something that bothered me terribly during the 2019 Women's World Cup. I was working the tournament at Fox and the day that the U.S. heavily defeated an overmatched Thailand squad, July 11, 2019, was about as an embarrassing spectacle as I've ever seen in all my years of both watching and traveling with U.S. national teams. Final score we'll all remember was 13-0 and the celebrating on the U.S. side never seemed to end. By the time of the sixth or seventh goal it was really embarrassing. The lack of professional respect for the opponent was sorely lacking and watching the wild celebrations, two arms in the air, over and over again was something I'll never forget. Despite all this, there were only a couple of us that this even bothered. Oh well, the though was, it's a world cup and the players are happy for each other. I guess I'm old school -- check that, I am old school. Anything more than a fist bump after the fourth goal is too much. Coaches would do well to heed your advice and pass along that respect for opponent to their players. The USA certainly did not show it that day.

  9. humble 1 replied, May 8, 2023 at 10:05 p.m.

    players do what they see on TV.  I filmed a youth game last weekend - team was loosing 0-1, scored to tie - the players celebrated wildly together - ran to the stand - saluted crowd (friends, family of course) and celebrated like it was the WC.  Lost 2-1.  Nonsense.  As for club coaches value winning - this is all part the vortex that is play-to-play soccer.  There is a huge lack of understanding of even how to develop players.  Friends of mine going through 'B' license now - very focused on tactics and psychology - very fancy - nomenclature - but - lacking core front line, talent ID, development and cultivation training and knowledge transfer.  So the way this plays out is we don't train on how to ID, dev and cultivate talent, and we train very complicated not really useful at the youth level tactics, so really only a few exceptional individuals know how to do this.  So what happens is everyone is judged on winning.  Of course we expect this from parents, but from coaches?  USSF, please get head out of sand and get licensing tuned to real needs of youth coaches in America.  Thank you.  

  10. Wooden Ships replied, May 9, 2023 at 9:33 a.m.

    It bothered me too John. 

  11. Ian Plenderleith replied, May 10, 2023 at 3:54 a.m.

    Thanks for your comments, John, and there is total merit to your argument. I have to be honest, though, and admit that I wrote up a match analysis for SA on the night (I was in the stadium too) defending the US players, who in fact did get a lot of flak for their celebrations that night, from both the press and some fans. My view was that they were building team spirit for the tournament ahead, rather than dissing their opponents, who went on the record as saying they were absolutely okay with the celebrations (they'd beaten a team in qualifying by the same scoreline - no idea who they celebrated the 13th. goal, though...). I also felt it was refreshing to see players enjoying themselves - probably because I watch too much men's soccer. But as you and humble1 both point out, there's a negative knock-on effect at the lower levels when this kind of celebration goes over the top for a win of no significance. Still, youth coaches should direct their players away from this kind of thing: "You might have seen it on TV in the pro game, but you're not on TV, and this is not the pro game. Ramp it down." 

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