Measuring Success in Youth Soccer. How do we do it?

So success. In soccer, you score one more goal than your opponent and you win. Win a game and you get three points. Win as many games as you can or make sure at least to win the right games. Seems a pretty simple way to measure success.

Maybe too simple.

The connection between winning and playing well in youth soccer is tenuous at best. Even at the highest levels the best team doesn’t always win. Soccer is a notoriously low scoring game. When a game can be decided by one goal, luck often has as much or more to do with the result than good performance does. Winning in youth soccer doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing well or developing. And losing doesn’t necessarily indicate playing poorly.

Here’s the problem though: how do you then measure success if not by results? A result is so easy to use — you won or you lost. And many coaches, players and parents think in those dual ways. We won so things are good. We lost so things are bad. Folks like me have been telling people that we need to be careful about those kinds of conclusions and look to measure success in youth soccer in other ways for a very long time.

In 1990, the Athletic Footwear Association released the results of a study they commissioned researchers from Michigan State University’s Youth Sport Institute to conduct. 10,000 youth sport participants between 10 and 18 were asked about their feelings towards their sport involvement, why they play, why they quit and how they feel about winning. The results have become monumental and still influence the development of youth sport programming today. This was research conducted in the mid 1980s and yet studies conducted today asking the same sorts of questions find kids saying the same sorts of things they did 35 years ago. Here are the top 10 reasons from that 1990 study why children and youth participate in their favourite sport.

Top 10 Reasons Why Children and Youth Participate in their Favourite Sport

  1. To have fun
  2. To improve my skill
  3. To stay in shape
  4. To do something I’m good at
  5. For the excitement of competition
  6. To get exercise
  7. To play as part of a team
  8. For the challenge of competition
  9. To learn new skills
  10. To win

Take careful note of where winning comes in on that list. And fun, the number one reason why kids play their favourite sport, is pretty easy to measure. Just ask, “Did you have fun — yes or no?” That’s a simple question for parents to use. As a coach, I’ve always found two statements very telling.

Statement #1 — “Are we going to play a game today?” = not having fun, want it to stop.

Statement #2 — “It’s over already?” = having fun, don’t want it to stop.

But after fun, a number of the reasons noted by children and youth for why they participate in their favourite sport have to do with learning and improvement (e.g., #2, #3, #4 and #9 on that list above). So performance-related stats are important as well for measuring success. Any performance/sport psychologist worth their weight will tell an athlete to focus on what they can control. An individual player cannot control the score on their own — there are just too many variables at play for one person to consistently impact it. However, a player has far more control over their own performance. I’ve often used this simple 2×2 matrix with players at half time and at the end of games to get them to reflect.

A Simple Performance vs Outcome Matrix for Measuring Success in Youth Soccer

When a team does both win and perform well, you pause for a moment and savour it. When a team wins and plays poorly at least you can acknowledge the victory and pay attention to the areas where you might have been lucky. When you lose but played well at least you can walk off the field holding your head high that you did what you could. We all just hope to avoid that last quadrant — the one where you lose and play poorly. On those days everyone just goes and gets ice cream and then tries to move on from the experience as soon as possible.

And so these are just some of the measures that can be used instead of looking at success only by the score of the game. There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, as reasons #5 and #8 in the top ten list above support that we should be striving to win every time we play. Results just shouldn’t be used as the only measure. That’s the benefit of pursuing excellence over success. If winning is the only stat that matters or the one that matters most than most of us, most of the time are going to be disappointed with the results. Look deeper than what’s on the scoreboard.

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