You don’t have to win the World Cup to be significant

As an England football fan I got excited (stupid I know) when my team reached the heights of the recent FIFA World Cup semi-final. I was 19 the last time I got to see such a phenomenon so forgive my enthusiasm even if it did (as it invariably does) end in tears. Three weeks of school holidays allowed me to indulge in the high-octane drama along with 3.4 billion others. There was so much invested in this tournament. Physical effort, financial sacrifice (1 million fans visited Russia) and emotional energy (most of it mine) were all expended in pursuit of the 18-carat gold trophy ultimately held aloft by France.

sky grass sport ball
Photo by Pixabay on



Away from the sports stations a quite different story of a much younger soccer team was running over on the news channels. It also had me gripped.

A squad of young boys in Thailand had managed to get themselves trapped by rising flood water four kilometres inside a cave. It took over two weeks to find them and get them out. On the same day as the first world semi-final the last of the boys and their coach were bought to the surface.

This was the real life and death story as opposed to the magnificent melodrama in the opposite hemisphere.

“The cave rescue showcased the best of humanity. Resourcefulness, resilience, team work, collaboration, care, love, diligence, thoroughness, optimism and hope. It has lifted the spirits and hopes of the whole world.” Ben Fogle.

This parallel and contrasting story served to highlight and remind us that there are far more important things than football and sport no matter how big the scale.

In terms of significance, lifting a young boy out of a cave will beat lifting the Jules Rimet trophy every time.

What are your recollections of the tournament?

Who can forget the wonder strikes from France’s Pradev against Argentina, or Neymar rolling around on the ground spawning countless memes and adverts for fried chicken?

Maybe for you is was Diego Maradona’s bizarre behaviour in the stands as he watched his team play Nigeria, culminating in his obscene gesture to the opposition fans as Argentina went on to victory.

Personally, an image that has stuck with me is of the Japanese fans staying behind to clear up the stadium after every match they were involved in, including their heart breaking last-minute defeat to Belgium. No trashing of streets or opposition furniture stores there. The Japanese team left their dressing room spotless with just a single word note to their Russian hosts ‘Spacibo’. Thank you.

With the exception of a few, these memories will fade into insignificance, merged with thousands of others from some previous twenty world cups and countless other sporting events.


It may sound harsh but the players at the World Cup, even the winners, while successful have not necessarily achieved anything of significance. Putting a ball in the back of a net (or over one if you preferred the tennis) is not an act that is going to change life for the better.

This is because success (sporting or otherwise) does not equal significance.

This is not to knock excellence.

Those who achieve in whatever forum can use the platform to make a real difference in someone’s life. However winning, in and of itself, is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world, even if it is the World Cup we’re winning. In the context of the global and local challenges we face such achievements pale into insignificance.

Those coaching and playing sport need to know this.

It is a hard lesson to hear above the fanfare and vuvuzelas in stadiums around the country. Hard to see through the crowds of 10,000 people watching a schoolboy rugby match and perhaps impossible to understand a professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime.

Despite these challenges coaches and teachers have to help students know they can be significant without this type of success.


Paul said to the Romans, the originators of epic sporting events, “…do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. We can step outside of the success paradigm so often presented to young people and think differently such things.

37242941_6094269879701_444033231096905728_nIf you’re a coach or are involved with young people you have a golden opportunity. The Journal of Coaching Education found that coaches were ranked as the no 1 positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. So how do you use this advantage to break free “from the pattern of the world” and rethink your tactics?

Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames the difference 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.”  Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves four 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?

These questions can guide you to a wider perspective that can help you to help your students leave a lasting and significant legacy. Without this your team, your children and you stand to lose a lot more than just a game. If you can shift your coaching, teaching and parenting from transactional to transformational then your charges performance will be “good and acceptable and perfect” even when you don’t win.

The orginal version of this post appeared in SU MAG at 


  1. It completely summarizes our mid year holidays. Breaths held during various games and exhalation on the surfing of the first Thai soccer boy. My two soccer boys on the sofa beside me. Certainly a World Cup we will never forget. Poignant. Thank you Tim


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