Winning Beyond the Scoreboard

Winning is the goal in every athletic contest.  Even at the youngest of ages, kids look at the scoreboard to see who won the game.  Newspapers, websites and television stations report the scores and standings so often that many can recite the record of the local NFL team much easier than they could remember their own relative’s birthdays!

When it comes to high school and youth sports we often talk about the phrase winning “beyond” the scoreboard.  The typical first reaction to that statement is that it must be something only teams who lose a lot would use.  In reality, this is what is at the core of education-based athletics and the teams who figure that out the best will actually win on the scoreboard more often too.

As a high school AD I have the chance to watch many teams and programs from a different perspective than I had as a high school coach.  The biggest difference is the appreciation and realization of how much greater the life lessons learned are in the long term compared with the euphoria or disappointment of the short term result.  To illustrate the point you can ask almost any athlete at the highest levels of sport what they remember about their own high school or youth sports experiences.  Of all the different athletes I have heard answer this question, I rarely if ever hear them recite their stats, exact scores from a game, or their team’s record in a given season.  Instead, they most often talk about the fun memories they had playing a game they love with friends, the fun times away from the competition or the important character traits that they first learned from an influential coach.

In recent years I have had a chance to observe the youth sports culture through the eyes of a youth softball coach.  After six years in a row of coaching 10-and-under softball between two daughters I have seen both extremes—coaches who coach for the scoreboard and coaches who coach “beyond it.”  In his book titled Inside Out Coaching, Joe Ehrmann describes those two different types of coaches as transactional (using athletes for their own identity and validation) and transformational (understand and intentionally teach to a greater purpose).  Not surprisingly the experiences of those who play for a transformational coach and are surrounded by parents and other athletes who share those values is a much more positive experience than those with a transactional coach and parents.

Here are just a couple of many examples from one recent 10-and-under weekend softball tournament:

Overheard in one dugout, a young girl comes in from the field and asks her coach in an innocent, soft voice if they are winning.  She was greeted with a harsh, “No, we are not winning! We are getting our butts kicked! Can’t you read the scoreboard?!” She put her head down and joined her other teammates sitting in near silence.  I happened to be walking by after the game when they were having a team meeting to discuss how early they needed to be back for their next game later that afternoon for some extra practice.  Needless to say not a lot of smiles or fun and it looked like a group of kids who would have rather been anywhere else.

Then, on an adjoining field, another team who was behind on the scoreboard was all smiles and appeared to really be enjoying a beautiful day and having a ton of fun together.  Anytime there would be a lull in the excitement one of their coaches would yell out “I believe” and players would yell back “we believe!”  Now part of me wondered if the coach understood mathematics because, with the five-run-per-inning maximum and just 10 minutes remaining until the game hit the time limit, it was impossible for them to come back and take the lead.  Then when the game ended I saw that this coach and team clearly had a different culture.  The comments centered around their never-give-up attitudes, their trust in one another and the fun they had as a team.  The next plan was for the pool party between games and making sure they had enough time to get back before the next game started with at least 15 minutes to “warm-up.”  Then when that was over the coach ran over to personally congratulate one of the kids from the other team on their performance and hustle.  Needless to say, the long-term lessons being intentionally taught and role-modeled, as well as the short-term results, were much more positive.  What is not discernable, however, in contrasting situations like this is which one will have more lasting impact.

In case you were wondering the first team actually went further in this particular tournament, but there was no doubt which team had a more valuable experience.  Pick any weekend, any sport in our multi-billion dollar youth sports industry and you, too, will see incredibly positive examples as well as some jaw-dropping negative ones.  The question for all of us as leaders is what are we doing to help all of our coaches become more intentionally transformational in every interaction they have with an athlete, an opponent, an official or a parent.

At the end of the tournament medals were awarded to the top several teams and both teams referenced above were among them.  Ask anyone who has been involved in youth sports and they will likely roll their eyes when the topic of medals/trophies/plaques comes up.  If your kids have played for any length of time you likely have a collection box/shelf/wall hanging or for the real crazy ones a dedicated shrine of awards.  What InsideOut has taught all of us is that at the end of our lives the only two things that will matter will be the relationships we have made with others and what impact we have made in this world.  So what about all those trophies?  Well, I know this for sure…each of them has a story and the score on the scoreboard or place on the medal is just one very small part of that story in the long run.