It’s Not All About Winning…But We Still Want to Win! (Part 2)

In part one of this blog series, I outlined how to develop every player on your roster while still fielding a competitive team. For this post, I’ll explain how to foster a competitive spirit in your team.

Most kids are naturally competitive. They constantly compete for attention, praise, the last piece of cake, first spot in line–whatever. But not all kids do. Many are content to stand back and let the others fight it out.

No matter their natural disposition, you can foster the competitive spirit in all of them–or even spark one where it doesn’t exist–by using fun as your secret weapon. But to make it fun for everyone, first you have to make them feel safe.

Creating a No Fail Zone

The naturally competitive young athletes will always respond to any situation where they sense a winner will be declared. They are not the ones you need to think about when intentionally fostering a spirit of competition. It’s the kids who are not jumping at the chance to separate themselves from the pack who need your creative inspiration to unlock the competitor within.

The first step is to make those kids feel safe. Often, what keeps us from competing is fear. Fear of failure, ridicule, embarrassment, etc. You can remove or at least lessen that fear by your behavior as the Coach. Here are some tips to help you do that:

  • Never point out the loser. Every person who has ever competed and fallen short knows full well that they fell short. They do not need you to remind teammates that they didn’t win, or came in last, or second, or whatever.
  • Always reward effort. Be sincere, and don’t ruin it by adding, “Even though you lost.” Stick with “Way to finish strong!” and “Way to work hard!”
  • Never associate affection exclusively with victory. This one is hard, because when a kid wins, it’s natural to give him or her a high five or a fist bump. And that’s okay–notice I said exclusively. Just make sure you are high-fiving and fist-bumping for effort as well as results.
  • Always find something positive to build on. No matter how poor a performance, if you really try you can find something positive to say. At the very least you can say, “I’m really glad you are here today.” I’m certain if you make an effort, you can do better than that for even the most challenging situation.

Using Fun to Foster Competition

Once you have established a culture free from fear, you are ready to infuse competition into everything. If the whole team feels safe, whenever you announce that an otherwise mundane activity is a competition the whole team will respond. Every drill, every conditioning exercise, every task–even cleaning up the cones after practice–can be made into a competition.

You can make it by group (linemen vs backs, outfield vs infield) or keep it individual. Vary the “prize” so they become conditioned to compete regardless of the reward. Keep them guessing. One time the group who finishes first gets out of conditioning; another time the player who gets the answer first gets a piece of candy. Don’t announce the prize before the challenge is over. That will help them learn to love to compete for the sake of competing, not just for a prize that only goes to the winner.

The most important element of infusing competition into everything is your attitude as the head coach. Do not underestimate the power of your excitement! If you whoop it up, cheer and clap while the kids are competing, they will get the message. If you stoically observe and then merely talk about competition, you will not get the results you want.

If you want to win while playing every kid on your roster, you need to develop a competitive fire in each of them individually and all of them collectively. A fire so hot that no matter the score, they will compete to the very last whistle.

Bill Stark is a former coach, current official and founder of Coach Assist, an organization dedicated to helping coaches be the best they can be. He enjoys inspiring coaches to greatness while equipping them to do the same for others. A husband and father of four amazing kids, he somehow always finds time to talk to coaches about their hopes, dreams and needs. Engage with him on Twitter @YourCoachAssist, at or via email at [email protected].

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