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Dollars For Goals

By Daniel Olstad, 10/04/21, 10:30AM CDT

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Can a well meaning reward have unintended consequences?

Dollars For Goals

Player: Coach guess what?

Me: What? 

Player: My [insert mom/dad/relative/guardian] is going to pay me $1 for every goal I score. 

Me: (Sighs and closes eyes) That’s great. Are they also going to pay you for every good pass you make, or anything else? 

Player: Nope! Only goals! 

Me: Ok. 

Every season, without fail, this is a conversation I have with at least one player and it always makes me cringe. These conversations also usually take place with players between the ages of 8 and 12. This seemingly innocent gesture or agreement between the player and a well-meaning person can make any coach’s life a little more difficult. It can also aid in stunting a player’s overall development. 

“How could this be?”, you may ask? How could a reward or incentive be a problem or hurt a player’s development? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Rewarding players should lead to better development, right? It gives them something to strive for and work toward, correct? This is true, but it is the type of reward and incentive and the reasons behind it that make all the difference. 

Let’s take a look at how this type of reward can be problematic. 

Decision Making 

Soccer is a game of decision-making and players are continually called upon to make the right choices at the right moments to succeed as individuals and as a team. What I have seen during my time coaching is a shift in players thinking and overall decision making when offered an incentive based solely on scoring goals. Instead of passing when confronted by the opposition these players instead selfishly keep the ball and try to dribble through a whole team in an effort to get their goal and reward. These players become fixated on their own perceived success in scoring goals, and the reward that follows, rather than making an effort to make good decisions with and without the ball and be a good teammate. I have seen very good “team” players turn very individualistic, hurting both the team and themselves in the process. 

A reward based solely on goals scored leads to a player focused on only one thing. How many goals can I score?

Overstepping The Coach

The coach-player relationship is very important and there is a level of trust at any age and stage of development that is required for players to develop to their fullest potential. This type of incentive can unknowingly erode that trust. The carrot hanging in front of them, the money and a happy parent, will far outweigh a coach’s request or instruction. Young players aim to please and they will of course want to please their parents before anyone else. After all, they have to go home with them.

When someone says “if you score I will pay you ‘x’ amount,” that is just a neon light flashing in a player’s mind. The monetary reward will more than likely shine brighter than a happy coach and the praise they may offer. The coach can’t get them a new toy or a treat on the way home. The player, either knowingly or not, begins to see the coach as someone to not listen to or trust because they are trying to derail the player’s ambition to get their reward. Because the player stops listening and trusting the coach, the coach can easily become frustrated. They then begin to see the player as having a negative effect on the team due to their selfish style of play and poor decision making. Like a beach in a hurricane, any trust has been washed away. 

More Than Goals! 

Soccer is a game that is about so much more than goals. At any age, scoring a goal is a very difficult thing and should be met with praise, but there are many more events in a game than scoring goals. During the 2020/21 English Premier league season an average of 2.61 goals were scored per game. In Major League Soccer (MLS) the current goals per game average is 2.51. At every level of play, goals are a rare and wonderful accomplishment and should be celebrated. 

But what about the rest of the game? A focus on rewarding and incentivizing goals takes away from the overall development of players. If there is a focus on goals then players begin to think that the only measure of being a good player is just that, scoring goals. If I score goals I am good and get a reward; if I don’t then I am not good enough and get nothing in return. Put this into practice. With goals being a rare commodity, and the fact that a player may not even be in a position to score through the course of a game, the groundwork could be laid for a false belief internally in the player that they are not good enough. Remember goals=reward and everything else=nothing.

What about a player who makes good passes, or makes great decisions when they have the ball? Does that not deserve to be rewarded? What about when a player makes good movement to support a teammate when they don’t have the ball? Reward or no reward? How about when a player makes a great tackle to win the ball from an opponent or makes a save as a goalkeeper? Why not pay your player for these actions. These actions are the ones that could lead to the team scoring the goal. Without a key tackle or a good decision in possession, maybe there is no opportunity for the team to score. Shouldn’t those actions then be rewarded the same as putting the ball into the net? If we were to reward them the same would that help in the overall development of the player and their own self belief? 

As a coach I have praised and rewarded those moments right alongside, and at times, even more so than the goal itself. Every action leads to the next action and a goal is the culmination of many actions from many players and we should recognize that and reward and praise all of those actions. Whether we are coaches, parents, or grandparents, we have to look at how we reward, praise and incentivize players. Even the most well meaning of rewards or praise, monetary or other, can have a big effect on players and how they believe they are seen by others and how they see themselves. I can’t say and will not say you shouldn’t reward your player for scoring a goal. It is my belief and observation in the years of working with young players that this type of reward, one solely based on scoring goals, can have a detrimental effect on young players' development. As well intentioned as it may be it could have a negative impact on your players development, on the field and off.