Recently, the excellent social media account Grassroots Football UK, shared a powerful video – with the hashtag #letthemplay – that showed a shivering and windswept young boy standing forlornly on the sidelines, watching his team mates play. It was narrated by the child himself, reading a poem lamenting his lack of playing time. It went like this:

I’m old enough to know I’m not good enough to play, maybe it’s time for me to walk away

I sit on the sidelines waiting my turn

I can’t wait to get on and have energy to burn

I tried my best in training

I tried my best at school

I’ve behaved well for Mum and dad and always for coach

I ask coach if I can play and he says the game is really tight

If you let me on I will play with all my might

It’s not so fun stuck on the side alone

While my friends are playing and I’m cold to the bone

I know others are better but I always try my best

How will I get better if I don’t play with the rest

My coach wants to win, I just want to play

This is my childhood at the end of the day

I thought this was fun but it’s not anymore

Coach isn’t interested in me only the score

I’m old enough to know I’m not good enough to play, maybe it’s time for me to walk away

The video struck a chord and went viral on both Facebook and Twitter. In the replies, debate raged. Many parents commented that they could relate to the clip, and as such found it heartbreaking. Some coaches felt the video was an attack on them. One coach, responding on Facebook, said:

It’s unfair to say all coaches who want to win want to win for themselves – I want to win for my players who work hard every week, I want to win for the parents too.

Another said:

When it comes to children’s sport make sure parents find a suitable level for their child to participate and enjoy and develop. If you’re learning to swim you don’t start in the deep end  

Both of those are points are entirely valid and understandable. Grassroots coaches are heroes – men and women who volunteer to sacrifice masses of their own free time for the benefit of others. It is of course difficult for coaches to find the right balance and to distribute playing time evenly, but when it comes to children in any team sport, enjoyment and development – i.e. playing time – surely has to be prioritised over winning? Should equal playing time be mandatory through the junior age groups, or should the coach be given discretion and freedom to select the team how he or she wishes? If equal playing time were to be mandated, how would it be enforced?

Winning or Enjoyment?

Back in 2013 the coach of a village under-10s football team was sacked for his tyrannical approach to winning. In a rather frank email to parents, the coach had said:

I am only interested in winning. I don’t care about equal play time or any other communist view of sport. Those that are not as good need to work harder or demonstrate more during training, or change sports. You are not doing your son any favours by suggesting the world is fair or non-competitive. Everything they are likely to do in life will be competitive so my view is get them used to it.

Days later the coach was fired, despite his winning record.

That “communist view of sport” is increasingly prevalent in today’s society, with a growing number of schools embracing a “prizes for all” culture in which winners are not recognised. Many parents find this a curious approach but a survey carried out by the MCC and the Chance to Shine charity revealed 64% of 8-16 year olds said they would be “relieved, not bothered or happier” if winning or losing were not a factor.

Sport is nothing if it is not enjoyed

Clearly exemplified by the case of the over-zealous under 10s coach, the competitive edge can go too far and can foster an unpleasantness that is off-putting to both children and parents alike. That over-the-top competitiveness, certainly from coaches, can manifest in the coach picking the same ‘best’ players every week, leaving the less able but equally committed kids kicking their heels on the sidelines. This, in our view, is clearly not right, and coaches in kids sport should not be prioritising winning over a fun, egalitarian approach to coaching that means roughly equal playing time for all and an emphasis on fun first, winning second.

It is perfectly reasonable, though, for competitiveness to be encouraged and winners to be rewarded – but, ultimately, sport is nothing if it is not enjoyed. We believe the essence of sport is that while you’re playing it, nothing else matters and everybody should be given a chance to enjoy it.

Are you a parent? Have you found your child in a situation like this? Or maybe you’re a coach who has tried to juggle a squad and knows only too well how difficult it can be? If so, let us know what you think.


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