To win requires mastery of skills

To win requires mastery of skills

The development of a child into a competent sports man or woman is a process that takes time and patience to master the skills necessary to succeed either as a participant or a competitive athlete. Each child is unique and will develop at his/her own pace, taking part in the sports that he/she comes to enjoy through exploration and performance.

The one thing we all seem to agree on is that the objective of sport is to win. What we don’t agree on is what makes someone a winner and the process it takes to master the skills required to win. How many times do we hear the first question a parent asks their 8 year old – “Did you win?” Perhaps the question should be, “What did you learn?”

There are 2 kinds of winners:

  • Winners on the scoreboard often referred to as “ego orientation”. This tends to be the traditional definition of a winner. A winner on the scoreboard can in fact be outplayed in every facet of the game but still have more points or goals. I don’t have to remind you of a rugby match played on Sunday 9th October 2011 in New Zealand, where the team who played the best, did not win! Why, because there are very often factors beyond the sportsman’s control. You can only control those aspects of your performance that you are in control of.
“If winning is defined as only those that finish first, then 97% of all participants at the Olympic Games would be failures!”  (Unknown)

That brings us to the second kind of winner.

  • Winners in terms of mastery or “process orientation”. A mediocre performance can still win a race whereas a magnificent performance may still lose the race, if others perform better. We can only control our own performance and hence the importance of focusing on mastering the skills (physical, technical, tactical and mental) to give ourselves the best possible chance of success.

Research at the 2000 Sydney Olympics indicated that athletes with a mastery orientation won more medals than athletes coached purely with a scoreboard orientation. (Dr Joan Duda, Chair of Sports Psychology at the University of Birmingham (UK))

The table below highlights the differences between mastery orientation and ego orientation.

  • Mastery/Process Orientation
  • Scoreboard/Ego Orientation
  • Effort focus – did I give my all?
  • Results focus – how many points did I score?
  • Learning and continuous improvement which is within your control
  • Comparison with others and the scoreboard as arbiter
  • Mistakes tolerated as part of the improvement process
  • Mistakes avoided because they lead to poor results on  the scoreboard
  • Decreased anxiety because in control
  • Increased anxiety leading to decreased performance
  • Increased self-esteem and self confidence
  • Decreased self esteem
  • Increased resilience – ability to bounce back faster after a setback
  • Decreased moral reasoning causing increased temptation to do whatever it may take to influence the scoreboard

The mastery of skill development is a process that takes place over a period of time and for successful and optimal performance this process needs to proceed through all the necessary stages at the appropriate developmental ages of children. This can be very generally summarized as follows:

Approximate,Developmental Age* (years) Skill,development
6 – 8 or 9 The essential skills such as skipping, hopping, jumping, throwing,,catching, hitting and swimming required as the foundation for more complex physical activities and sports
8 or 9 – 11 or 12 General sport skills suitable for a variety of activities and sports
11 or 12 – 15 or 16 Sport specific physical, technical, tactical and mental skills to compete at higher levels
15 or 16 upwards Sport specialisation for “serious” competition or for non-competitive participants to become active for life

*Developmental age refers to the degree of physical, mental, cognitive and emotional maturity of a child which may be different to their chronological age, i.e. their age in years since birth.

So how can you as coaches encourage those that you coach to develop a high mastery orientation? Here are some practical tips. By focussing on the process the results will take care of themselves.

  • Reinforce effective process goal setting. For example, “What throwing skill am I trying to improve during today’s practice session?”
  • Emphasise the value of hard work & persistence. “Did I put in my best effort today?”
  • Connect with your athletes. Do you understand each athlete on an individual basis and know what encouragement will get a specific player to participate and perform to the best of their ability
  • Emphasise individual progress. Each child’s progress should be “measured” against his/her own potential.
  • Reward skills improvement as well as acknowledging those that perform at the highest levels.
  • Encourage critical self-observation. Each child should develop the ability to assess their own progress.
  • Reflect on their own performance and encourage self-discovery. By thinking about how a particular practice session or event went, children will learn to identify the strengths on which they can build and the mistakes which they can rectify through practice
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” (Michael Jordan)


Gibson, B.  Performance implications of Physical and Mental Growth of the Young Athlete.  Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia.  Coaches’ Information Service. 2008

Gould, D., Dieffenbach, K., Moffett, A.  The Development of Psychological Talent in U.S Olympic Champions. University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 2001

Hemery, D. In Pursuit of Sporting Excellence. A Study of Sport’s Highest Achievers. 1986

Thompson, J. The Double Goal Coach. 2002

Long Term Athlete Development



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