Playing Well or Winning Ugly?

I was talking to one of my judoplayers about our women’s soccer team win over the Japanese at the London Olympics, and I told her we won, but we didn’t play very well.  Her mom was sitting nearby, and said “Who cares?  We won!”  She was, of course, right…but also very wrong, especially with the message her daughter heard.

The last thing we want young athletes and our own kids to know is that it’s OK to play poorly as long as you win.  This is not the recipe for long-term success in any sporting endeavor.  In the development stages, winning simply can’t be all that counts.  This is a prime reason why many sport federations and national programs ban structured competition at an early age: too much emphasis on winning and not enough on skill development.

Master coaches know that it’s better to lose while playing well than it’s to win playing badly. Unfortunately, this philosophy is contrary to the wishes of many coaches, most parents, and consequently our athletes.  Like their students and kids, coaches and parents suffer from immediate gratification.  Short-term results are the primary goal: no time to wait for real skills to be developed over ten years and ten thousand hours of deep training.  All that matters is winning now, even if it means settling for mediocrity.

Successful athletes are satisfied when they’re able to perform to their potential.  Winning is great, but performing to your potential is better.  The following two stories illustrate this.  Having already won a gold medal at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, Roland Matthes from East Germany was the odds-on favorite to win the 100 meter backstroke at the 1976 Olympics.  Unfortunately, he was sick with the flu and placed third behind John Nabor and Peter Rocca of the U.S.  In an interview that followed his bronze medal performance, his coaches indicated that he and they were happy with the results.  A blood lactate test given to him in training indicated that his times would not be fast enough to beat the Americans.  In spite of his sickness, he had swum to the best of his potential.

More recently, an American swimmer whose name escapes me, was dejected after winning his Olympic gold medal.  He had not swum to the best of his potential and had not broken the world record.

While much of our society accepts mediocrity for the sake of developing self-esteem in children, we Judo coaches must not adopt this misplaced philosophy.  True, we need to recognize the ups and downs of performance, but we must not settle for anything less than playing well, even in the face of losing a match.  Above all, celebrate playing well, even to the extent of ignoring the win-loss columns.  If your priorities are correct and your primary emphasis is developing sound technical and tactical skills, eventually you will become a champion and win lots of trophies and medals.

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