The cost of winning

A recent article on social media rightly raises questions about the way school boy rugby is conducted. Do we have too great a ‘win at all costs’ mentality in South African school sport?

By Tim Jarvis

I am proud of mMeadows benchesy coaching record, but not so proud of my pitch side behaviour. I once told my opposite number that his style of coaching was the reason South African soccer was in such a mess. Much of the impact of my words were lost I think given that my team were 7-1 down at the time. A few years before that I saw red in more ways than one as I disabused the referee of the notion that he was impartial, fair or in any way competent when it came to officiating a football game.

I have reflected on the alter ego that appears whenever I am near a white line and I have come to the conclusion that it is most likely to manifest itself when I care too much about winning. Winning is of course important, no one should play sport to lose, but when it becomes everything we are already losers.

A cause gone wrong?

Making winning everything or even winning everything comes at a price. An excellent article on the Facebook site ‘Rugby – a cause gone wrong‘ (read it) gives an illuminating critique of the ‘win at all costs’ philosophy that has permeated many school cultures. It also highlights the costs of this mentality (including the opportunity cost of what miIMG_3434ght have been). Winning, in and of itself, is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world. So is using a club to push a ball in a hole, as is driving an expensive car or earning a large salary. In the context of the global and local challenges we face, all of these achievements pale into insignificance, success in these terms is simply not important or relevant to the world we live in. Boys playing sport need to know this.

This is a difficult lesson to learn for an adolescent when up to 10,000 people are cheering you on in a schoolboy rugby match. It is hard to see, given the adulation and fanfare reserved for players who make the Springbok squad. Impossible to understand perhaps when professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime. A winning season is of course associated with success, but it is important that our students know that success does not equal significance.

Larry Gelwix, coach of the Highland Rugby Team and featured in the movie ‘Forever Strong’, said, “It’s not about rugby, it’s about young men. It’s not about building a Championship team, it’s about building Championship boys; boys who will be forever strong.” That’s a great quote. As educators and coaches we must first be aiming to build boys into significant as opposed to merely successful men. This means that regardless of what happens on the field in terms of results we can see growth and development in the character of our teams and the individuals within them. We can have winning teams and championship boys irrespective of their win/lose ratios.

Transformational not transactional coaches

If boys need to know that winning as an end in itself is not significant then so do their coaches.  Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames this as transformational, as opposed to transactional, coaching. A transactional coach has “their focus solely on winning and meeting their personal needs”, whereas a transformational coach “helps young people grow into responsible adults, they leave a lasting legacy.” In a report by the Journal of Coaching Education it was found that coaches were ranked as the no 1 positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves 4 questions:

  1. Why do I coach?
  2. Why do I coach the way I do?
  3. What does it feel like to be coached by me?
  4. How do I define success?

MHS v Hilton

In closing I want to retell a story played out in the American PBS documentary ‘Raising Cain’, narrated by psychologist Michael Thompson. Having examined the lives of teenage boys across the US, the series concludes by following the fortunes of Lincoln Sudbury, a High School Football team, and coverage of their final derby match against arch rivals Newton South,  upon which the success of their season will be judged. Lincoln Sudbury lose the game and anyone watching the footage can see they are truly shattered.

Thompson though, as he reflects on the game and the boys, chose to finish his broadcast with these words, “The boys thought today’s game was going to be a test of their manhood. They were right but not in the way they had imagined. These young men are going to have to prove they can cope with an immense disappointment…Today they showed deep compassion for each other. They’ve learnt that emotional courage is courage. Our job is to help them learn that lesson well.”

I still hate losing (especially 7-1) but I am realising that there are bigger lessons to be learnt.  Without this larger perspective my team and I stand to lose a lot more than just a game.




  1. Like the statement: As educators and coaches we must first be aiming to build boys into significant as opposed to merely successful men.
    Thanks for another good article Tim.


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