#52 – The Heart of a Lion

What Makes a Winner? 

Can you lose a game and walk away as a winner? There is ZERO question that a youth player can be a winner when the scoreboard reads in favor of the other team. Let's talk about how player can leave the field as winners - even when the score board says otherwise. 

A Sample Game

Last weekend, we played against a team and walked away with a scoreboard win. In our case, the scoreboard win was also a morale booster because we've been playing numbers down against some pretty strong team this season. The win was just what we needed to restore some confidence and remind us that we know how to play. 

The other team was pretty discouraged though. I could see it on their faces as they left the field. I asked the other coach if I could address this team. Just so you coaches out there know, this isn't something I usually do, but I had a good chat with the other coach during the game and given the time and place, it felt like the right thing to do that day. 

I shared an observation with the other team's players. A few of them never gave up. To them, the score didn't seem to matter. They kept giving it 100% the entire game. As a coach, I am so impressed when my own players do this that i thought it might be a good learning moment for the other team. "You guys gave my team a good run today." I said "Thank you for giving us a good fight." 

"I saw some of you guys not giving up throughout the entire game." I continued. "You guys kept going 100% all the way through. As a coach, that really impresses the heck out of me. It doesn't matter what the score board says. Today, you guys who stayed strong and kept going until the end are walking off this field as winners. I appreciate when I see a winner's spirit on the field. You guys who kept at it have that winner's spirit!" 

I thanked the coach for an opportunity to speak to his team and left. 

The Winner's Spirit

I've seen this winner's spirit on the field on both winning and losing teams for years. It doesn't look like kids dancing around after the scoreboard shows a higher number. In fact, it often looks like grit and determination, a smile and a genuine handshake from a player (or a coach) on the side of  a team that just lost. 

As a coach, I'm looking for the winning spirit at practice. It shows itself in how well our players commit to being there. Are they pushing through the beep test? Are they engaging 100%. Are they making mistakes and allowing themselves to move past them? I personally think what I see in practice is important. It's the first chance I get to see what kind of spirit each of my players has, and how hard they work in practice is usually a good indicator of how hard they will work in games. 

I believe the winning spirit comes out best when the score is stacked against us. I'm looking for players who don't quit. The ones who push even harder when the scoreboard is stacked against us. When I hear players calling a "new game" or a "Zero/Zero" when the second half starts and they take on the game with renewed energy - those players are lions! 

It's easy to dance around and be happy when you're winning. But to pick yourself up and go all in when you're down... that's NOT easy. When players pick each other up instead of beat one another down, they are showing leadership. When players start verbally abusing one another, by contrast, pointing fingers, or blaming the referee, they are losing in more way than just on the scoreboard. 

Taming the Lion

I suspect that if a lion tamer were to tell his or her story about taming lions, they would probably talk about how each lion has their own personality. Ideally, we want there to be the heart of a lion in every player. As coaches, we want players to be able to draw on their own strengths and spirit on the field and use that energy when it counts. 

It's a delicate thing to connect and draw out the best form each player. Some require a stick. Others require a carrot. Some require a mixture of carrot and stick. And everyone is different. 

I'd be lying if I said I've been able to find and draw out the inner lion from each of my players. Some are easier than others. Some I'm still working on. My point is, this thing about heart is: it's a process. It's a process that parents can definitely be involved with at home, and it's a process that is helped by good communication and patience. 

Every conversation I have with parents tells me a little more about the players I'm coaching. I am deliberately putting them into situations where I'm testing their limits, pushing them past where they think they can go, and giving them a safe place to try big and make big mistakes. 

I sincerely don't want my players to win every game they play. If they win all the time, there are huge lessons they will be missing out on. In fact, it would close them down and boost their ego's past a healthy point. Having coached a team that won literally every single game for three seasons in a row, I can tell you that scoreboard wins can be hard on development. Without learning how to lose, being pushed to get better, or feeling the emotions that come from both winning AND from losing, many of the lessons we're teaching through youth sports are lost. 

Losses reveal a side of players (and of parents) that we need to see in order to know what we're working with. We need to see that again to know if we're making a difference. Consider this: 

A player was in position to one touch a beautiful cross into the net today. The whole team (and the sidelines) gasped as this cross came from right to left across to my left winger. He was in perfect position, took his shot and missed wide. 

There was a part of me that was watching for the net rattle - and I would have celebrated with the team if that came, but it didn't. The next thing that got my attention was key: How was my left winger managing himself and his loss. It was public. It was obvious. What would he do? 

He chose to shut down. The rebound came off to the center and was booted back to the left side - right where my left winger should have been standing if he was still in the game. My center attacking mid fielder made a valiant and dramatic sprint to the sideline to save the ball and keep momentum on the play. He was successful. The ball was served in to the center of the opponent's red zone and we got a second chance. My player was still shut down. 

"Hey, Waldo! (his name isn't Waldo)" I yelled. "You're looking strong out there. Shake it off and get back in the game!" 

He literally shook his head and started jogging to take up a useful position on the field. I could tell that he wasn't fully engaged yet, but here's the win: An opponent just beat him to the ball moments later. I was there with him in his head. I saw him not engaging 100% at first, then deciding to engage, then hesitating again, then engaging. I imagined I was watching a train just getting started from a dead stop at the station. All of his mental cars were trying, then getting pulled back, then pulling forward again. He was back in the game!

Seconds later, he was clearly not giving up. He was engaging his opponent, winning the ball, and at the very least, making it impossible for the counter attack to happen. I was proud. I had just witnessed a moment of greatness.

This player got his clock cleaned with the missed cross. It could have messed up the rest of his game. He got a small prompt from me, then made a deliberate choice to reengage and throw himself into the game. 

There were great moments throughout the game like this. We just happened to come away with a 3:2 win, but the snapshots I remember were times like when Waldo rebooted his game spirit, when Bob stretched beyond what he thought possible to deflect a ball from our goal that had gotten past our keeper, and when John never gave up a run at our goal to an opponent that clearly had superior foot skills and speed. John used his head and tenacity to stay engaged and shut down what had potential to be a devastating attack on our goal. 

I love seeing stories like these unfold on the field. I know that these players will behave the same way in life later down the road. They won't quit when things get hard. They won't get down when they're outgunned. They will live their lives as the lions they learned to be on our soccer fields - whatever the score was. 


  • Allan, David G. “The Art of Turning Losing into Winning.” CNN, Cable News Network, 4 Nov. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/11/01/health/winning-at-losing-wisdom-project/index.html.
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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.