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Winning is a Limitation

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'Winning is a Limitation'. It's a throwaway line I first started using about 20 years ago. I like it because it can make you think and also because there is some truth in it. The point of the phrase is to give permission to athletes to be working on things other than just winning, and also to help coaches recognise how their own needs are reflected in their coaching.

Is winning actually a limitation? Of course not. Is losing a limitation? Of course not. Having said that, focussing exclusively on winning, to the detriment of trying new things, clearly limits development, just as completely ignoring the outcome does. But, as they say, winning 'conceals' and losing 'reveals'. I think this is a saying but if it isn't then I will trademark it.

Once I was running a junior National camp where the focus was on skill learning and I wrote 'Winning is a Limitation' on the whiteboard. I wrote this in order to emphasise to the athletes (and coaches) that we were assessing them on their ability to learn and change, not on whether they won a drill. After a lunch break on day two I discovered someone had changed the writing to 'can be' from 'is a'. I was astonished that anyone would find just having this written down so threatening that they couldn't stop themselves from changing it. So I changed it back.

Another example of how to manage this balance occurred when I was talking to a coach, who is a former elite international athlete from a different country, and I asked what the most difficult thing about working in Australia was. He said that it was balancing the need for the systematic development of fundamentals with the requirements for competition success. I asked how he managed it - he said that he focuses on good development and makes sure the athletes understand this will limit (NOT eliminate, just limit) their immediate chances for competition success. I asked how he managed the parents in this situation, he said 'I tell them that is what I'm doing'.

The danger with the 'winning/development' paradigm is that many people try to turn it into a binary argument. That is - you are either doing one or the other. In my experience, these are people who want a justification to focus exclusively on winning the next competition they are in. It is not binary. You can win AND technically develop all your athletes. To paraphrase JJ Watt, if a coach encourages your child to focus only on winning, they don't have they don't have your child's best interests in mind.

What did you think of this blog? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment below
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Comments (6)

   
TrevorF1

Yes, go ahead and trademark that bit about "winning conceals, losing reveals" - it's a powerful idea, and helps to stop the complacency that can come with winning, especially a run of wins. And you bring out very well the clash between results and technique. Certainly at the stage when I was receiving coaching, as opposed to doing it, I remember my squash game apparently going backwards as I spent time adjusting to new grip or stance or movement - but the longer-term benefits came through. Your post is an excellent reminder that (in more than one context) "winning isn't everything" (no trademark needed)..

04/04/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks for your thoughts Trevor.

06/04/17
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Coach_Browning

A great piece and one that I can relate to. For me, I think that the important thing to do is to reflect on what is meant by winning. Often this purely means having a higher score than the opposition - how you got to that can often get overlooked. Did your start player take over the game and win it single handedly? What has that achieved for the rest of the team?

I recall reading something once on an American Football coaching forum where a coach was relating a conversation he had had with another coach. This other coach had indicated he was playing a particular scheme as it was built around a particularly great player he had. This coach then responded with the question of what would he do if that player was injured? How good was the back up? It can be easy to chase scoreboard wins, but unless you spend the time developing the team as a whole, then this strategy is only one that is short lived.

But to return to my original comment - it is important to define what is meant by winning. Blake did a great job of collating some of my thoughts on this area in an article about learning from defeat -

https://www.connectedcoaches.org/spaces/10/welcome-and-general/blogs/general/4167/simon-says-put-your-hands-in-the-air-if-you-think-you-can-learn-from-a-heavy-defeat

In this, and part 1 of it, I talk about how it is important to set yourself goals to serve as these wins. Things that you can constantly build to and adapt as your team develops and needs stretching.

So for me, "winning" is a continuum that is not black and white. Sure, if you score more points then that is an obvious win, but did the team advance in its development while doing so? Are they better now than they were before the game?

04/04/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks Simon. Very nice post. I was actually brought up with TGfU (I think we called it Game Sense). Heavily influenced by USA Volleyball (Beal, Kessel, etc) and my university had great people like Alan Launder and Wendy Piltz. It was only about 10 years later that I discovered not everyone thought like this!

As for the definition of winning - now THAT's an interesting idea!

06/04/17
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nmackey

Really good post - I coach junior elite tennis players and I've seen this from different angles. There are the players who win most of the tournaments in the early days but don't let their game develop for fear of losing i.e. as someone else mentioned in relation to squash changing grip, being more aggressive on second services etc.. and eventually drop away because they don't evolve their game and think winning is everything. With my players we focus on performance and executing the plan - we take winning and losing out of it - the review after the match is about how they played rather than if they won or not. The players (and parents!!) are initially very sceptical until they finally buy into it after examples such as praise for performance and execution during a loss or a critique for a match they actually won. Not everyone can buy into to it mentally and let themselves just play but the funny thing is the ones that do then actually start winning a lot more because that is not the aim - the aim is performance and executing the plan.

07/04/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks Niall. You're right, some people find it easier than others, but it is effective as long as the coach is one of the ones who can do it!

11/04/17
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AndyS

Nice piece Alexis, and one that resonates well with me.

We've completely taken the competition element out of our Mini rugby (the RFU changed Tournaments to Festivals so no overall winners but reward and praise for effort), and it's really helped develop the kids as the result really doesn't matter, only the enjoyment of playing, which has the amazing result that they want to try harder and improve in training - and that's for the team, not individually.

I set goals for each season, and this season it was a) to win two matches (so I could placate some parents) b) end the season with more players than we started (to prove they enjoy what we're doing) and c) see the grow and develop their rugby.

They absolutely smashed all three!! Huge smiles while playing, 7 more players at the end than the start and only 2 teams able to beat us all season!
#ProudCoach

02/06/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks for your thoughts Andy. I've always believed in the philosophy that, if you want people to think something is worthwhile, the first thing to do is make sure it is worthwhile. Then people will come!

02/06/17
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geroconnor

Great post, i couldn't agree more. Winning can mask all the failings especially in team sports. If we base everything on outcome then as players and coaches we will be failure a lot of the time.When playing teams that you know are better and you have no chance of winning the game the only way to keep players focused is to set performance goals.Players take responsibility for their own learning and when they achieve their own target are so keen to tell the coach, this is far more powerful than just the come of the game.

06/06/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks Gerard. The point about performance goals is the critical part. If you want to reduce the emphasis on winning/losing, then you need to replace it with other ways of evaluating performance.

06/06/17
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Goose

Great thread! Lots of really good points and thoughtful views, here is my two peneth! Forgive me I do ramble at times.

Winning is very black and white on the scoreboard, the issue for a lot of non coaches and spectators/parents is that this drives their emotional response i.e. Little Johns dad is happy because he won whilst Chloe's dad is disappointed because she lost. Very simplistic I know but they are the outside views.

I like the idea of winning being a continuum. As a coach I hang my hat on raising the performance of the individual within the team (rugby), and developing the learning growth mind set to improve our young players. One of my mantras with which ever squad I am coaching is 'it is not about where you start, it is about where you finish'. Meaning what ever level of performance the player comes into the session it does not matter. What matters is the progressive steps/min goals they make learning through the session. This learning is then celebrated as a success and we see it as a win along the journey. You could say that I am trying to foster a winning mentality, getting them to reflect and to take satisfaction out of knowing they have done their best and succeeded no matter how big the step is or how long takes. Hopefully leading them to want to do more and get better. It does foster a very rewarding, competitive, fun environment as all players have a buy in, a motivation to try things to achieve.

The scoreboard does not matter we have lost games by 30 points this year but have felt like victories because of the performances of the players. As a team we have lost more games than we won, but the numbers of players have grown in the squad throughout the year. We try and reflect (which is not easy) on a 30-0 loss in the same way as a 30-0 win. A squad of 27 keen motivated players is moving from U16 to Colts which is a big positive in my area bucking the trend of falling numbers. Now that is what I consider to be winning!

12/06/17
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alexis.lebedew

Thanks Nathan. That sounds great. As a coach of developing athletes having a high retention rate at a time of significant dropoff (traditionally in the late teens) is a big win!

12/06/17
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