Play to Win THE Game

In a game recently, our starting pitcher was dominant.  If he had stayed in the game, we would have easily won.  However, this pitcher is also the pitcher on his little league team, as well as his “other” travel team.  I took him out and we lost.  In the parking lot, an inquisitive parent asked – “Why didn’t you keep him in?  I don’t understand why you didn’t play to win THIS game?”  I responded:  “We are playing to win the game.”  He followed with: “then why take out (our Pitcher) when he was clearly dominating.”  I responded, “we are playing to win THE game… not A game.

The conversation made me reflect on my playing career, my coaching, and our businesses training strategy.  All of which was and is founded on this notion:  we play to win THE game.

As Herm Edwards suggests here, “You play to win THE game!”  Unfortunately, most – including the parent above – conflate this message with – “You play to win A game.”  Although seemingly trivial, the difference between these two thoughts underlies the pitfalls of sports in America and has consequences that transcend the playing field.

You play to win THE game, not to win A game.

Successful athletes – current and former – will define themselves with words associated with their sport.  “Hard working,” “leader,” “team player,” “responsible,” – all positive self-defining characteristics of student-athletes.  We develop these traits on the field – and we carry them with us for life.  This is why Sport is wonderful and so pervasive in our society today – we grow, we compete, and we define ourselves by the traits in which we develop through it. This is THE game.  It is a series of singular games, singular seasons, a lifetime of formal and informal training sessions – and it defines who we are as people.  And winning it – being a “winner” of THE game – should be the singular goal of all.

Like any other game, there is a strategy to winning; and like academia, there are varied levels to it that we need to plan for, analyze, and manage.  We need to construct a curriculum based on these levels and follow the blueprint for “winning THE game.”

Winning:  A Game vs THE Game

I try to win EVERY game, whether it is baseball or family Trivial Pursuit during the holidays.  However, to grow as students/athletes/individuals, we cannot let these short term competitions (A game) come at the expense of the long term (THE game).  Unfortunately, in my life as a professional educator, I have noticed that most are intently focused on winning A game… at any cost.  This is understandable.  Because of our biological makeup, we are generally short term thinkers and it is difficult for us to pan out and see the long game.  However, the misplaced focus on winning A game negatively impacts our ability to win THE game.  When focus is placed on winning A game, losing becomes associated with general failure.  As a failure averse society, we find excuses for losing a singular game – umpires, coaches, teammates.  This becomes a vicious cycle.  The feeling of Losing A game becomes magnified.  We complain more, we jump from team to team, we play more games, we train less.

With this cycle, the positive traits gained through Sport diminish.  Consequently, we are left with student-athletes who are bitter, disenfranchised, lazy, sore losers.  More importantly  – because of the intense focus on A game – we have athletes who have set the seeds to losing THE game.

So how do we become winners at THE game?  How do we create an environment of success, that fosters all the positive traits that winners embody?  How do we enable people to not just win A game, some games, many games, but WIN THE GAME!


Similar to academia, we need a curriculum that will help our student-athletes grow at a level and pace that is suitable for their individual levels.  Below is a blueprint by age, that we can follow, to help student-athletes grow, develop, and become winners at THE game.  We can adjust the ages based on an individual’s needs; but generally:

LEVEL 1 (AGES 6-10)

At these ages, winning at THE game includes:  learning the rules of Sport, exploring and creating general movement patterns and learning how to be a good teammate.  Ironically, at this level, the star on the team can win A game by him/herself.   However, this is incompatible with how games are won at elite levels.  Being a “team player” will ironically cause kids to actually lose at this level – which is why it is important to maintain focus on the value of teamwork, effort, and sportsmanship over winning A game.

At these ages, informal games – in which kids are allowed to explore and “figure it out” – are the predominant medium of play.  As an adult, we view things differently than kids. Due to our own insecurities, we often can’t help but focus on winning A game.  We can’t help take our knowledge from our former playing days (or watching pro sports) and apply it to helping young kids “win.” Overcoaching isn’t a character flaw, it’s just a byproduct of our information heavy – and insecure – world. Well meaning parents, unfortunately, are often times the worst enemies of their kids development.

Learning Targets for Level I:

  • Learn the Rules of A Game
    • Including the scoring of A game so players understand it.  SCORE SHOULD BE KEPT.  Trophies shouldn’t be given out; but participants should have an understanding of who won and who lost in A game.  This will help student-athletes experience and understand losing/failure in a healthy manner.
  • Learn the Basic fundamentals of the games.
    • As previously noted, “coaching” at this level is simply teaching the rules, teamwork, and general game play.  Athletes should be given the opportunity to explore the sport – and guided via questioning and introspection not through elite youth game “management.”  External cues and external targets should be the only technical coaching introduced.
  • Begin to understand movement patterns
    • Athletes should develop awareness of general movements and be encouraged to solve external problems to promote movement awareness.  This will help athletes understand what movements produce successful external goals which will correctly align with winning A game as they advance.
  • Learn what it’s like to play on a team and have coaches
    • Learning to play with others of varying abilities is critical.  Playing on the most dominant team means nothing at this age.  Playing with and helping less talented players understand the game is critical.

Takeaways: There will always be the 7U National Championships, youth parent fights, and parents spending absurd amount of money on equipment, tournaments and travel for THEIR EGOS and ENTERTAINMENT – but we need to focus on providing an outlet for the athletes that are looking to develop a foundation for winning THE game.  Completing Level I will allow youth athletes to understand and develop teamwork skills, camaraderie through game play, social skills, and sportsmanship.  It will expose all athletes to failure and losing A game (which will be paramount moving forward) as well as experience the reward of winning.  It will enable young athletes to recognize stronger and weaker players in a healthy manner.  And, since winning strategy at the youth level is diametrically different than at the elite levels, athletes should be allowed to freely explore their own movements in informal game play without the overcoaching associated with youth sports today.

LEVEL 2 (AGES 11-14)

I watched a 14u baseball game yesterday.  The last out featured a 6’1 fully developed young adult striking out a 4’11 child who clearly hasn’t physically developed yet.  What did either player gain from this?  At these middle ages, there are extreme differences in physical development.  Often times, this translates to kids that are simply bigger winning A game.  A false sense of achievement awaits these bigger kids (and their parents) while physically over-matched players become disenfranchised with the sport, insecure about themselves, and quit.

At these ages, focus should be on the development of an athlete’s individual skills while playing predominantly informal small sided games.  Reps need to be maximized at these ages. Focusing on formalized games limits the reps that kids in this age group need to advance in THE game. Practices with kids standing in the outfield while a coach throws BP for kids to get 5-10 swings can’t happen.

Learning Targets:

  • Develop Individual Skills
    • Through increased reps and small sided game play, student-athletes will better develop skills necessary to advance in their sport.
    • REPETITIONS:  Specific skill drills with the a healthy mix of game like chaos to provide athletes with a better foundation for the long game.  Formalized Games limit quality reps – in a 3 game tournament a player may get 1 groundball and swing the bat a handful of times.  In order to compete in THE game, athletes at Level 2 need the required reps to develop their ability to move effectively for the demands of the sport.
  • Develop Sovereignty and Accountability
    • By being responsible for individual training, athletes will have to take ownership of their growth.  They will have to be accountable to themselves and to their peers in small sided games.  By not lauding physically advanced kids over their peers – all participants can progress at their own rate.
  • Develop Sport Specific Movement Patterns
    • In Level 1, student-athletes were able to develop general movements to understand and develop all planes of motion.  In Level 2, athletes begin to develop sport specific movements that will enable growth within select disciplines.
  • Build On Level 1 Learning Targets
    • General fitness levels will continue to improve as athletes compete in informal and small sided games.  Further, athletes will be able to now utilize their maturing brains, bodies and individual skills to better assist, complement, and push their peers.

Takeaways:  Level 1 provided a foundation for student-athletes to advance within THE game.  Level 2 helps maturing athletes develop individual skills through increased skill acquisition focused reps while furthering their Level 1 development.  Formalized gameplay continues through Level 2; however, at a much lower rate than our current state.  During formalized play, players should still be competing to win with the understanding that there are multiple goals they are trying to achieve. Overall, Level 2 is setting the foundation for student-athlete mastery; therefore, a focus on informal small sided games and PRACTICES that maximizes reps and skill acquisition are needed.

LEVEL 3 (AGES 14-18)

Level 1 and Level 2 help student athletes develop skills that will transcend the playing field.  Student-athletes that do not continue to participate in their respective sport after those levels will still have a solid physical health foundation while developing the positive attributes that Sport can instill.  Level 3 will take the individual skill development from Level 2 and start placing student-athletes in higher levels of formalized game play.  Level 3 coaches are professional/highly trained coaches who understand the goal is still centered on winning THE game rather than A game.

Learning Targets:

  • Continually Develop Individual Skills
  • Apply Individual Skill development to Formalized Games
  • Analyze, Assess, and Correct Game Mistakes
  • Winning individual games takes on a higher priority than previous levels.  Strategy, flow, and game specific movements become are highly prioritized.