When learning is better than winning

June 12, 2018 | Posted in: Elementary

“No Jane….don’t do cartwheels on the field during the game!”

“Timmy…don’t climb the soccer goal, it’s not a cargo net!”

“Great pass Charlie!”

“We are going the other direction Sam!”

This was pretty much what my first experience coaching a youth soccer game was like.

My children have been playing soccer as long as they could toddle around the house with a ball at their feet. They grew up with the songs and chants of London’s Fulham FC and the U.S. Men’s National Team in the background as they played with their blocks and Fischer Price toys on the living room floor.

They began playing recreational soccer when they started school and are both now on travel teams.

I had always known it was possible I would one day end up coaching them.  That day came quite accidentally this spring. Our soccer club has both fall and spring recreational leagues, as well as a travel program, but volunteer coaches are in short demand. The rec league was at risk of not being able to field enough teams for the number of kids interested in playing. Two certified adults were needed for each team for all games and practices.

One thing led to another and I ended up as the assistant coach for my son’s second and third grade team, as well as for my daughter’s fourth and fifth grade team.

Here is what I learned from this experience:

Educating kids isn’t easy

Watching your kids play from the sidelines is very different than coaching them when they are one of a dozen players on a team. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was how hard it could be to herd youth players and give them some meaningful instruction for just an hour or two a week.

While I work in schools, I am not in a role that requires me to supervise students. I dash in for a photo or a video; take some notes; and head back to my office. I have newfound respect for teachers and school staff members, especially the unsung heroes in schools –cafeteria aids, bus drivers, teaching assistants, hall monitors, etc. These are the folks who make sure our kids are safe and primed for learning.

The difference between second and third grade kids and fourth and fifth grade kids is huge.

Ok, so this isn’t rocket science. Some of the kids on my son’s team, especially at first, could barely kick the ball, let alone understand basic positioning on the field. Although, they have gotten much better since the start of the season, my daughter’s team has enough foundational soccer skills that much of our time in practice can be spent on positioning and tactics.

But it was really “how” they learned that stood out to me. The older kids seemed to be more engaged. You could show them something once or twice and they would get it. For the younger kids, there was much more of a struggle for them to pay attention. I asked some of the elementary school teachers I know, and they said this was something they also encountered.

Kids want to win.

We are at least a generation or two now into the Every Child Gets a Trophy-school of rearing children, but kids often know exactly what the score is during a game, especially the fourth and fifth graders,

I suspect that not keeping score in youth sports isn’t just intended to ward off hurt feelings for younger players. It’s also a way to keep out some of the craziness parents can bring to the field.  We’ve all seen ugly videos, or at least heard of situations that went too far, with parents arguing with other parents or worse.

I haven’t always agreed with policies like those in our rec league, where there is no score kept. But at one of my fourth and fifth grade team’s recent games, there was a scenario that proved to me, and hopefully, to my young goalkeeper, Sally, that learning is sometimes better than winning.

Three times Sally kicked the ball up field on goal kicks and twice it was quickly intercepted by an opposing forward who stuffed it in the net. I encouraged her to keep taking the kicks because our defenders needed to be able to get forward and move the ball into the opposing half.

Sally was getting frustrated with herself. But what was worse, her teammates were getting frustrated at her, because those goals were making the difference in a close game.

But then it happened. Sally took a few steps back from the ball; looked up field and saw Pedro making a run from the box up the right sideline; she made contact with the ball; and launched a perfect curving goal kick right to midfield and into Pedro’s path.  A few touches later and Pedro played a square ball into the box to Leah.


They call soccer “The Beautiful Game.” I told the kids afterward that I would take one of the team-generated goals that Sally set up with her perfect kick over 10 of the goals like those the opposing team scored on her earlier in the game. It wasn’t just the smart, skilled play that was beautiful that day. It was the smiles.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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