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What happens when you only play to win?

What happens when your sole goal is to add to the trophy collection?

Not too long ago there was a decorated, highly accomplished, and acclaimed world champion who became a global hero. This champion’s success created a brand; and a burden. He became bigger than his name and the sport itself.

He became a symbol.

This champion adopted a win-at-all costs mentality in order to protect the public image that had been created, even if it was all smoke and mirrors. In a national TV interview with Oprah, this seven-time world champion admitted he let the pressure of winning create a monster.

“I was trying to win at all costs.”

As he told his story, Lance Armstrong, painted a picture of a sport culture that put what’s most important in the background. He became the problem. He cheated and took drugs in order to chase and win the trophies.

It’s easy to see why we see and hear so many unfortunate stories and incidents in youth sports when these things occur within professional sports.

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You may be asking, “How do we stop it?”

I like to refer to this famous quote: It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”~Frederick Douglass

A few weeks ago one of my assistant coaches and I were talking prior to checking out rental cars for our team camp. My assistant is also a club coach and we began discussing what kids should be getting out of playing basketball, what coaches expect, and what’s most important.

Winning vs Development

It seems as though far too many associated with youth sports care more about the trophies than the development, and basketball is no exception. Now one might ask, don’t they go hand in hand? Not necessarily.

Let’s use basketball as the example…A coach may have a bigger, more athletic team than the majority of the competition. So, what do many in this situation do? They coach only plays that play to their size and athletic advantage at that moment.

Well isn’t that smart coaching? Yes, if you’re interested in collecting $5 medals. No, if you’re concerned about the players’ development. Sooner or later the competition is going to equal out in size and athleticism. Then what? Development should always take precedence over winning. If it doesn’t in your child’s club program, it may be time to go elsewhere.

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What are our kids learning?

What are our kids learning if it’s win-at-all costs? Will they be the next Lance Armstrong? It’s our job as coaches and parents to model the behavior we expect from our youth athletes. What are we teaching them when we berate officials, loudly criticize teammates, and fight in the stands? All for what? The $5 medal and bragging rights at the office Monday? C’mon man!

It’s okay to want to win, but it’s not okay to only teach and coach “throw it to the big kid” every time down the court. It’s not okay to only play the first six players in youth basketball. All kids need to be coaches and given time to develop during game situations. Teaching young athletes how to prepare to win is more important than actually winning itself.

What high school coaches want

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If a youth athlete comes from a program that emphasizes development over winning they will naturally be more skilled, and ready for high school ball because of all the work they’ve put in. You can’t just “throw it to the big” at the vast majority of high schools. Plain and simple, we don’t care how many games, tournaments, or medals your team won in 7th or 8th grade. We care about whether you’re coachable and if you can actually play or not.

I get it it’s not easy. There’s been many times where I’ve lost to a more talented team. And I admit, I’ve beat myself up, wished I was better, wished my team was better, etc. But then I think back to my “Why”, and it’s not to solely win games. Our program’s mission statement is to “Build Champions On and Off the Court.”

When it gets tough and it seems like it would be easier just teach a few plays or gadgets that will get you wins, it’s time to go back to your core.

Why do you coach?

Remember, it’s about the players and their experience, not you.

Serve and pour into your players, coaches, parents, and community.

It’s not about the trophies, they collect dust. It’s about people and relationships. The ultimate measurement of success for us coaches is did we make them better on and off the court? If we can answer “Yes!” to that, then we’ve done our job and can be proud.

As always, thanks for reading, have a great week, and be an RGP today!


Coach Elmendorf is available to speak to your team, group, or organization. Message him for details.