How Important is Winning?

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”—former UCLA and Vanderbilt football coach Red Sanders

“I just want to play and have fun.”—a typical 10- to 15-year-old athlete

Research indicates that young athletes find playing for coaches who stress personal improvement, having fun and giving maximum effort is far more important and has a bigger impact on them than a team’s won-loss record. “In terms of athletes’ ratings of how much fun they had and how much they liked playing for their coach, our results showed that a mastery climate was about 10 times more influential than the team’s won-loss record,” says Dr. Ronald Smith, a University of Washington sport psychologist and co-author of a study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.

Learning vs. Winning at All Costs

A mastery climate is a learning environment that emphasizes skill development, personal and team success, maximum effort, and fun. This approach to coaching contrasts with an ego climate, in which the main goal is winning at all costs and success is defined as being better than other players. “We found that a win-at-all-costs ego climate was negatively related to enjoyment and liking the coach,” says Smith.

Dr. Frank Smoll, co-author of the study adds, “Many coaches mistakenly believe winning is the most important thing to kids. But our research provides convincing evidence that refutes this myth.”

Kids Prefer Mastery Climate

The Smith and Smoll study surveyed 268 boys and girls who participated in basketball programs operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation. The sample was predominantly white and middle class. The results indicated that players’ attitudes toward their coach were positively associated with the athletes’ perceptions of a mastery climate and negatively associated with perceptions of an ego climate.

Boys and girls who perceived that their coach created a mastery climate:

  • Liked playing for their coach more.

  • Rated their coaches as more knowledgeable about the sport.

  • Thought their coach was better at teaching kids how to play basketball.

  • Had a greater desire to play for the coach again the following year.

  • Enjoyed their team experience more.


Smoll noted that the results held up equally well for girls and boys and that winning was relatively unimportant when it comes to youth sports. Athletes who played on more successful teams (those with better won-loss records) believed that their coach was more knowledgeable about basketball, but a winning team record was far less influential than a mastery climate. “This study replicates research we did with Little League Baseball back in the 1970s,” says Smoll. “Things haven’t changed because kids’ internal makeup and core values are still the same when it comes to playing sports.”

Practical Implication

“Youth sport administrators can use our results to teach coaches a powerful lesson: Winning isn’t everything, nor is it the only thing. The key to a positive athletic experience rests solidly on the ways the coach relates to athletes and on the achievement standards that he or she emphasizes,” says Smoll.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Ronald E. Smith, Ph.D., and Frank L. Smoll, Ph.D., for contributing to this article. Drs. Smith and Smoll are sport psychologists at the University of Washington and co-directors of the Youth Enrichment in Sports program. To see previews of their Mastery Approach to Coaching and Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports DVDs, visit www.y-e-sports.com.
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