Is there more to sport than winning?
The coach of Chalfont St Peter's under-10s football team was relieved of his duties after he sent an email to parents that said: "I am only interested in winning"
If all political careers end in failure, as Enoch Powell almost said, then so do most football managers'. The likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, striding away after decades of untrammelled success, are rare indeed. But although most managerial stints end in the sack, it's not usually for trying to instil a winning mentality.
That has been the fate of Justin Byrne, now the former coach of Chalfont St Peter FC's under-10s after two successful years at the helm. He made the mistake of attempting to channel the spirit of the celebrated American football coach Vince Lombardi, famous for lines such as "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing", and "Show me a good loser, and I'll show you a loser".
Mr Byrne, the director of a recruitment firm in everyday life, sent an email to parents after some of them had complained that their sons weren't getting into the A team.
"I am only interested in winning," he wrote. "I don't care about equal play time or any other communist view of sport... You are not doing your son any favours by suggesting the world is fair or non-competitive."
Those who opposed him were "weak-minded" individuals who "think sport is about knitting". Four days later he was relieved of his duties (though in time-honoured fashion he should really have been given a vote of confidence by the board first).
He seemed to be dismissing the idea that the lessons to be learnt from playing competitive sport mostly involve losing, not least the value of perseverance; any half-decent sports coach will tell you there's more to be learnt from a defeat than there is from victory. There's a balance to be struck: sport's primary function for all ages is to be fun. And though there may be lessons in defeat, losing all the time isn't fun.
But then neither is being yelled at all the time. I remember as a 12-year-old centre-back having a great game against a striker much more talented than me who'd spent most of the match being bawled out by his coach. As the final whistle approached he finally burst into tears. That isn't to say Justin Byrne was like this with his boys, but I can't picture him strolling round delivering quiet words of encouragement.
There is evidence that overly aggressive coaching is counter-productive (and anecdotally, in professional football it's difficult to think of too many out-and-out martinets who've had sustained success).
A study carried out last year at Clemson University in the US found that athletes had less trust in aggressive coaches, and earlier this year the Rutgers American football coach, Mike Rice, was fired after a video circulated of him verbally abusing players.
"A good coach leads his team to water," he said later. "A great coach leads his team to water and makes them thirsty. I led them to water and put their heads in until I was satisfied how much they drank."
It wasn't a successful approach – he'd had three losing seasons in the job.
Mr Byrne told the parents of his players: "If some of the boys are saying 'I prefer rugby', that is great. Rugby is a far better sport, It produces well-disciplined young men who are respectful and team-focused."
The parent of a rugby-playing 12-year-old, I can say that in my experience rugby coaches do a decent job of motivating without intimidating, keeping it serious but making it fun. But it isn't always the case. Another rugby dad told me that when his son's side beat a team attached to one of the big clubs the losing coach stalked off and refused to shake hands with his winning counterpart. I doubt whether even Justin Byrne would have done that.
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