As hard as it is to believe, variance is simply part of sport–all sports.

In the NFL, with great, experienced athletes, they still say “On any given Sunday.” If you are coaching middle school or younger athletes, the fact is the variance is much greater. It is just part of competition, and sometimes you are the big dog and sometimes you are the hydrant.

Two matches come to mind for me.

I coached 13s in a national qualifier and won set one 25-0. After changing sides, we lost 0-25 without changing the lineup. We did win the deciding set and went on to qualify. Still, that match had me smiling about the edges of randomness and regression to the mean. These things should allow coaches to not get fooled by the randomness, and yet, some coaches think “We played poorly, so now I will punish them and they will get better.”

Why do coaches break the trust of a team in knowing that your players are not performing poorly on purpose, and then bailing out on their role as a teacher? For me, "winners stay on" is the punishment of losing. Simple.

The second match was at the 1988 Olympic semifinal, where one team was undefeated, not losing a set, and the other team just barely made the playoffs with two match losses in their pool. Add in that the undefeated team so far had also beaten its opponent something like 21 straight times in the years prior.

The result in that semifinal? The team that just eked into the playoffs won 3-0. The scores I will never forget, though, 15-0, 15-9, 15-2.

So, might you hear yourself saying after such a drubbing:

  • "They did not practice enough."
  • "They just did not want to be here."
  • "They did not get enough sleep."
  • "They did not know what to do at this level."

Are there other banal statements coaches often blame their players for? I hope you no longer will and just realize that variance happens at all levels of sport and is widest at the less experienced level.

Things Happen...

If you are in a tournament and still playing, you need to get the players to get rid of that match and focus on what they can control – the next match and the first point in that match.
They do NOT need to run lines or do burpees or any form of physical punishment, that is just a failure to teach/coach. See this article (the link downloads a PDF from Shape America) to better understand punishment

You’ll likely need to get the parents to understand this, too, as this is simply all part of the process. If you want to spend time talking, it should be about the successes in that process you saw – the great plays.

If you have been teaching them resilience and modeling how failure is part of this same process, then you can even celebrate getting that experience behind you and moving on. We have not played great – YET. That key word that is part of learning in reality.

Another thing is to remind them that they are learning by doing even if the score does not go their way. The six on the court are learning in the heat of the battle in front of their parents and fans. The bench players are learning to be supportive and real teammates, regardless of the score.

Hopefully you as their coach have shown this “Right here, right now” focus of working on the one point you can control – this one and no other (not the last one, or two points in the future, just this one), and you hope that the variance is with you – as streaks happen both good and bad.

In general, the younger the players, the more the score matters to … the coaches and the parents. Your jobs, parents and coaches, is simple – to give them a LOVE of the game, to develop leadership skills and resilience through effort and attitude. The score takes care of itself.

You need to judge yourself by how many kids play the next season after playing for you – those who don’t, well, those are the real important losses to study and learn from, about honing your teaching skills.

Other than 12 players on the Olympic gold medal team, there will ALWAYS be someone better than you. We need as teachers/coaches/parents to embrace the process (failure included, as in 9,999 ways NOT to make a light bulb by Edison) and show how we trust and believe in them.

In this process, we want to instill in our players self-motivation, and a desire to improve that, win or lose, is never satiated. Catching your players doing it “right” is simple but not done enough (most coaches stay silent in practice and games until they see an error to “fix).

The scoring in practice in “grills” (gamelike situations) gets players more comfortable with scoring in matches and gives a player a process goal between those official competitions. An athlete, regardless of gender, competes when they step on the practice or playing field; there is no such thing as an athleta and an athleto. In her book, Gender & Competition, Kathy DeBoer wisely notes that in general women need to bond to battle, while men battle to bond. No matter what, athletes need to compete with trust in their coach that they are supported even through the lessons from failures.

There are great lessons in being thumped on the playing field. At the black/white level – do you just quit/give up or keep fighting hard after a loss of a point or a match? With the fact that 50 percent of the teams lose each match played, no matter how badly they lost or played, it is simply part of learning – just like when you failed in learning to ride a bike.

I love how our national teams look at it – failures are simply OPPORTUNITIES TO IMPROVE. That is the outlook at the top level, and is equally important at the younger, less skilled levels where variance is greater. In sport, we perform and we know that success is simply showing up again for deliberate practice and a desire to improve.

So, coaches and parents, losing by a little or a lot is going to happen to every player. HOW you deal with it is the issue, and I know after losing for nearly 50 years as a player, coach and parent that you remain consistent and treat it as the part of learning that it is. It’s another chance to get better, one point, match or practice at a time.