It's a question sure to polarise parents and coaches up and down the country. Is winning all that important, or is taking part the most beneficial aspect for the next generation?

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The dropout rate of young adult players has long exercised the minds of rugby’s rulers. Faced by falling participation rates in recent years, the RFU commissioned research into new ways to teach the younger age groups – with the emphasis on fun and involvement.

Nothing controversial about that you’d think, and certainly there were few rumblings when an initial pilot scheme was run in three counties. But, say dissenters, the devil is in the detail. The latest development is the Kids First programme, launched last year and now being trialled by junior clubs up and down England.

A key component of the new philosophy is the scrapping of competitive matches – meaning those where results are recorded and trophies can be won. Performance, not outcome, is the creed.

Dave Parsons, a youth coach at Bath club Walcot, is one of those embracing the Kids First programme. He insists that a focus on ‘winning’ at festivals would undermine the development message practised throughout the season and that mixed-ability teams should be used until at least the age of 12.

“Balderdash!” just might be Simon Halliday’s blurted response. The ex-England centre says children need to experience winning and losing to prepare them for life. He argues that kids need the opportunity to play under pressure, with pride and prizes at stake, and denying them that could see them switch to sports where their competitive juices can be satisfied.

It’s a critical issue sure to evoke strong feelings. Read the views of Parsons and Halliday, then tell us what you think…

Competitive instinct: Many youngsters are desperate to win (Pic Inpho)

Competitive instinct: Many youngsters are desperate to win (Pic Inpho)

YES

Putting fun first will develop players better and keep them in the game, says grass-roots youth coach Dave Parsons

The current rules for mini and youth rugby were devised in 1990 and rely on ‘best guess’ development rather than credible evidence. The RFU decided to address that in 2007, commissioning research from Exeter University to identify how to improve the skills of young players and help retain them into the adult game.

The studies show that kids learn best by playing small-sided games where they get lots of touches.

Limiting the rules allows them to express themselves – why not play on if the ball is dropped? – and the large inequalities in body size, due to different maturation rates, mean reducing the emphasis on contact promotes skills and decision-making rather than a ‘bigger is better’ ethos.

It’s unstructured sport in its purest form and part of this thinking is that winning isn’t important as the focus is on development and enjoyment.

Indeed, one RFU survey of U8s and U10s found that 36% cited “having fun” as the prime reason for playing rugby, followed by “playing with friends” (24%) and “being involved in the action” (17%). Only 7% gave “winning” as their answer.

Next generation: Tag rugby has been hugely successful (Pic Action images)

Next generation: Tag rugby has been hugely successful (Pic Action images)

Last season the RFU launched a pilot programme called Kids First, based on this philosophy. Walcot was one of about 30 clubs invited to take part. With only four-a-side at the youngest level (U7), kids get to run more, pass more, score more tries. They get sticker books in which to record personal achievements.

Trying to ensure everyone improves, and builds confidence, is critical. Your focus has to be more about development and enjoyment than winning. Constant shouts of “spread out!” and “run straight!” will have an adverse effect on children.

Winning has importance for youngsters but it’s a more transient experience than for adults. Coaches who focus on winning, and only regularly pick the best players, tend to end up with the ‘weaker’ players being marginalised and giving up.

So the weaker players leave and, after a few years, between U13 and U16, the team folds. I’ve seen plenty of examples of this locally. The flip side is that coaches who focus on developing all players will retain more players over time. Particularly if they focus on game-based, rather than drill-based, training.

I’ve seen the benefits of this approach at Walcot. We want our teams to be as competitive as they can, and are happy for them when they win friendly games. But putting an emphasis on winning matches or tournaments would contradict the developmental focus we put on our coaching, and send a mixed message to children and parents. So when we play fixtures at mini level, we put out mixed-ability teams and not A, B and C teams.

We prefer not to enter tournaments where there’s a declared winner and at the end of this season we’ll hold a round-robin festival, with no overall winners. Everyone will get a medal.

As players get older, I believe they should experience more competition, and perhaps by 16 to 18 they should be entering leagues and cups. But at U7, does it matter which club wins the tournament? From what I’ve seen, it matters a lot more to the adults.

Enjoyment: Minis rugby is thriving up and down the country (Pic Action Images)

Enjoyment: Minis rugby is thriving up and down the country (Pic Action Images)

NO

This flawed thinking deprives kids of the chance to learn the lessons of life, says ex-England centre Simon Halliday  

Losing, like winning, is a fundamental part of life. How we respond to it helps define us as human beings. So you can imagine my bewilderment on hearing of the new rules imposed on teams participating in a mini festival in Surrey, part of the wider Kids First pilot programme run by the RFU.

Teams had to play round-robin games with no knockout element and no overall winner. Sides were of mixed abilities and coaches were expected to discuss the strengths of their selections beforehand to ensure teams were evenly matched. They were asked to adjust them if necessary on the day.

Clubs not adhering to these rules were told they would be asked to leave the festival. It’s a player-centred approach designed to bring enjoyment for all. In fact, it’s causing a serious amount of unhappiness.

The ‘law makers’ at the RFU tell us that having winners and losers makes kids feel excluded, that mini-rugby coaches are working to an adult-driven agenda, living their own careers through their kids. Yet competition is not only instinctive but essential. As that great man Nelson Mandela said, you need to feel adversity to be able to deal with it.

Athletic prowess: Young players are getting ever more powerful at a young age (Pic Inpho)

Athletic prowess: Young players are getting ever more powerful at a young age (Pic Inpho)

Losing is part of life – it’s in the classroom, with your parents, on the streets. I started playing rugby when I was seven. I was small for my age and got a bit mangled at times, but it toughens you up. You smile, shake hands and vow to do better next time.

There can be issues in mini rugby with parents who shout abuse on the sidelines. If that happens, you have to step in – even send a parent off if you have to. Rugby has a code of conduct. And, of course, there should be game time for all. If you’re 40 points up, then take off the best players.

But this Kids First initiative is taking a sledgehammer to a nut. These people on the legacy committee talk about players as “customers”. They aren’t rugby people. And they’re missing the point, too, because there isn’t a problem with Surrey mini rugby. At my club Esher, hundreds of kids play the game every Sunday and get huge enjoyment. We have mixed teams, tag, girls – the whole lot.

This new concept can work in areas where rugby needs to be developed, where it’s not embedded in the local schools. But don’t mess with the structure in established rugby areas because it’s not broken.

We don’t have a tournament each Sunday, but there’s a time when you need one. A tournament is a chance to put everything into practice with a bit of pressure. It makes sure children understand the principles that underpin rugby, such as humility, respect and fair play.

People are up in arms about the new rules and Esher weren’t alone
in withdrawing from the festival.

You can’t tell a ten-year-old to get ready for a tournament that doesn’t have a winner, and in which they might have to change shirts to play for the other side. Nor can you tell them, “Please slow down because that person is slower or fatter than you.” That’s why you have A, B and C teams. It’s not rocket science.

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  • BoyBath

    That has not been my experience Im from the club in the article. We have massively increased our youth numbers and retention rate – this has fed in to keeping the whole clubs finances going – a win for me. On a mixed ability team – well normally 2 teams (of mixed ability) we loose once or twice a season – that’s it we are the most developed in the local area. We are now in the position where we are struggling to find people to give us a good game. A few times this season Im playing the team 1 man down to give them some competition. AND the only clubs that give us competition are the ones coaching mixed ability. In last weekends local tournament/festival across U9-U12 aprox 50 games – because we had, mainly 2 teams per age, 3 losses and 2 draws and 45 wins. We are a small to middle size club – with respect how many England caps (age grade have you done in the last 4 years we have done 4 and we

    WHY well we follow the smALLBLACKS hand book which is 90% of the RFUs new initiatives have come from. I dont know better than the best youth production system for the last 50 years – Im just applying their lessons – because they work and they produce excellent players. I dont think the RFU have put the full benefits argument out well but there they are:

    MORE KIDS PLAYING
    MORE CAPABLE PLAYERS
    BETTER RESULTS
    DOING WHAT THE NZ KIDS DO

  • HarrytheHill

    Most of the development players are dragged down to the rugby clubs as their parents want them to have a bit of fresh air. They don’t own a rugby ball at home and do not know what ends they should hold a ball. The A players have a tendency to play rugby every spare minute they have. They practice at home and look forward to playing rugby at the weekend against other similar minded people. The B players are the same in some degree. Our coaches have been experimenting with the new RFU rules since Christmas. The A players are not enjoying playing rugby with development players who cannot catch or pass. It is not as much fun for the A players as when they were playing before they were mixing with the development players. The A and B players are now losing interest and are giving up rugby. The RFU have this so totally wrong. Why can’t the RFU put a bit more support behind the rugby clubs most keen players.

  • BoyBath

    1st point the coach needs to sort the team out stamp out the non core values practices and get the kids to pass to the best players. That is their job after all and not to keep some of the parents happy. If your not exposed to the better players how are you going to start trying to play like them? We are a small (300 kids) community club all the kids get equal game time – etc but where the coaches are following this guidance we are struggling to get decent opposition. Normally cause the coaches have got their kids playing at 9 or 10.
    Does it work for the elite players – as I said we are a small club but :

    There is currently 3 premier league players in the EPL that are products of our youth system.

    The last time that England won the RWC U20 the top scorer in the final was a product of our youth system.

    AND one of the current EngU18 is a product of our youth system. Every other year we stick a youth in the academy (premiership) youth system.

    WE ARE PROUD of them but they represent 0.5 % of players we can still produce these players and service the needs of the other 99.5% which we see as more important.

    As for your last line the Smallblacks have a line in their hand book – A & B sides dont do it – so what your purporting goes against NZ youth policy.

  • HarrytheHill

    The problem with mixing A players with development players is that the better players won’t pass to the development players as they cannot catch or pass. You end up rotating the players so the development players have a go with the ball but as they can’t pass very well the A players get very frustrated. Some of our A players have dropped out all together which is very sad for the future of rugby.

  • HarrytheHill

    The new RFU regulation is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

    My son played in the mini rugby Middlesex County Shield Tournament a few weeks back and they were lucky enough to win. The tournament was run by Rosslyn Park and of course they ran a qualifying stage, semi-final and final. The event was well run with about a 25 minute break between matches. A couple of weeks later he played in the Surrey County mini rugby festival ran by Dorking RFC. He played four matches where the points weren’t recorded and we went home. The wait between matches was about 45-60mins which was completely crazy and the kids and parents were getting very bored.

    I asked my son which tournament he preferred and he said the Middlesex. Why I asked and he answered ‘Because we won it’. I asked him which one was more fun (as the RFU research asked). He of course said the Middlesex tournament.

    Why can’t the RFU work out for themselves the reason kids drop out of sport around 12/13 age is because their schools are putting them under pressure to pass exams. A lot of schools also start teaching the kids on Saturday so a lot of families want their kids to have a day off on Sunday. Nothing to do with if they’re having fun on the rugby field.

  • BoyBath

    The most developed team normally wins so I am not surprised – we rarely struggle because the kids are getting better most weeks. I wish all adults around kids in rugby got this. I am lucky to have joined a coaching set up that has a strong and long history of this.

  • Chris Wright

    At Wrexham U9s we play mixed ability and have not been beaten all season

  • Tori Bird

    Totally agree with you, nothing against winning and competition but the problem comes when competitive parents and coaches insist on playing the “big, run through everybody kids” and leaving the less developed, less able kids to sit and spend most of the time being substitutes, on the side lines. These children learn nothing apart from believing they are not good enough, end up leaving the sport to chose a sport they might get included in. Who knows they may of ended up being fantastic players, who love the sport, but never had the chance and were written off as an under 10 !!! I played rugby for many years and loved the fact that the game involved all different skills and mixture of abilities, you don’t need 15 try scorers, you need workers, unselfish players, strong players, good tacklers, decision makers, speedsters and the ability to combine the mixture of skills to make a good team. A and B teams end up being one team of Big, tuck it under one arm, rather selfish players ! No skill in that I’m afraid. I even hear parents paying their kids £1 a try ??? No emphasis on passing, rucking, tackling its all about scoring tries and winning, so small minded and teaches kids nothing !!!

  • BoyBath

    Rather than having an “A Team” and a “B Team” include a mix of players with different skill levels in each team. This way both teams will be competitive and the juniors enjoy the game more.

    Taken direct from the Smallblacks training hand book but then again what do the ABs know about training kids to play rugby. The problem is with a trophy for the coach to parade – often the coach will make a “really good team” for that read physically big and a “lesser team” quite often not had their growth spurt yet. With competitions you see it all the time 2 kids on a team 3 stone heavier than their counterparts with no technique apart from smash through the opposition. The RFU have only told half the truth they dont want trophies so they can control the egotistical coaches and make them abide by what will produce the best and biggest numbers of rugby players. Clubs like Ersher who refused to play mixed ability teams are causing the problem. What kid learns from an unbalanced game none develop the kids to their full potential and the scoreline looks after its self. All the scoreline teaches is kids to add up nothing about rugby.