What I Learned About Leadership While Coaching Kids Soccer
Around age six or seven our oldest son began to play league soccer. I took him to weekly practices and hung around to watch – the only parent to do so. Naturally, when the coach wanted to run a drill that could use an extra pair of hands (feet?), he asked if I would help. And I did. Pretty regularly. Then Coach began to have conflicts with the practice schedule and asked if I would sub for him for one or two sessions. And before I knew what was happening, he had quit. And my son’s team was without a coach.
Now I am not a “sports” person. I had never played soccer and had only a limited knowledge of the game and its rules. But the league did not have another coach to assign. And no other parent was able or willing to step forward. So I went to the bookstore, bought a handful of books, learned as much as I could as quickly as I could, and agreed to take over the team. And in doing so, I learned some life lessons about Leadership.
Lesson 1 – See the Need, Do the Deed: The first lesson is simple – be willing to step up when the need arises. This is not limited to positions of title, but includes opportunities to show your leadership ability on specific tasks, projects, and unforeseen challenges. Do not be afraid to volunteer. In fact, welcome these opportunities as a way to help the whole. In the world of work, you need to be willing to step forward when it is crunch time. And if it is your company, you need to be open to those employees – even if inexperienced – who do step forward and offer to help. You may discover a potential you didn’t know was there.
Lesson 2 – Titles Don’t Mean Much: I was given the title of “Coach”, but I had never coached anyone previously. Everything I knew about soccer came from a book, and most of that knowledge had not yet been tested. So while my title meant the kids were supposed to listen to me, if I didn’t do something beyond simply having the position, they weren’t going to continue to listen. In the world of work, every leadership role initially relies upon title or position. People will initially follow you because they have to. But if that’s all you got, you won’t be a leader for long. Or the people you are supposed to lead will be constantly turning over. As a leader you need to get beyond your title, to develop a relationship with others in which they will follow you not because they have to, but because they want to.
Lesson 3 – It’s Not About You: In hindsight, I may have been an ideal candidate for coach. I did not seek the role because I had been a soccer star in high school or college. I was not trying to relive my youth, nor was I trying to live my sports fantasies vicariously through my child. This was something I didn’t do for me, I did it for the kids. My job, as I saw it, was to lift them up, not me. To help them learn and be better players. To serve them. I believe the same about leadership at work. The role of a great leader is to guide their people to greatness. Not to exalt themselves as a leader.
Lesson 4 – It’s Also Not About Winning: We all want to be “winners”. And in private business you have to “win” just to stay in business. But should that be your primary focus? When I took over the soccer team I told the kids and their parents that I only had two goals. The first – I wanted the kids to learn to play soccer. Many were like my son – fairly new to the game. I thought it was important for them to know, understand, and master the fundamentals, even if doing so meant we lost games. My second goal was that they have fun. They were, after all, children. So I worked hard to make sure they could have a good time, and not be overshadowed by trying to put one in the win column. I reminded them before every practice and every game… “Why are we here? To learn to play soccer and have fun.” The first year I think we were victorious only once. But we were in for the long haul, and our initial focus was on rules, strategy and technique.
Lesson 5 – Teach Your Players: So… if I wanted the kids to learn the rules, strategy and techniques, I needed to teach them. To spend time with them and mentor them. This wasn’t simply throwing a soccer ball out on the field during practice and letting them kick it around. I first gave them information. I drew diagrams to help them understand. I ran them through exercises to build up stamina and develop technique. And I pushed for them to keep a ball at their feet while at home doing homework, or watching TV, so the feel of it on their foot would become second nature. We learned by doing. But I led that effort, just as a leader in any organization needs to be willing to do. While “sink or swim” may be the new employee orientation model of some companies, it is far less effective than a great leader who understands the development needs of his or her employees, and commits to fulfilling those needs.
Lesson 6 – Communication is Vital: As the Coach I had a chance to communicate every practice with my players, but I needed to take some extra effort to communicate with their parents. So I created a simple, two sided ‘newsletter’ that I sent home from practice each week. Through it I kept them informed as to what we were doing, what we were learning, how they could help, what they should do and not do. I helped parents understand their role and be better connected. Communication is also vital in the world of work, and the area where many businesses and organizations fall short. Leaders keep people informed, making sure that everyone gets the info, not matter how closely connected they are.
Lesson 7 – Let Your Players Think for Themselves: I am so glad I did not enter the world of coaching at the Kindergarten level. My wife and I later called those games “Bee Ball” because wherever the ball went, it would be followed by a ‘swarm’ of little soccer players. Inevitably the coach and half the parents would be yelling directions – often conflicting directions – to their players. We didn’t do that. I let parents know that I would provide only minimal direction from the sidelines, and I asked them to refrain from doing so at all. It helped prevent some ‘stage parenting’ but mostly it required the players to think for themselves. They needed to rely upon what we had practiced and learned in order to make quick but accurate decisions during the stress on a non-stop soccer game. Leaders do that. They develop the thinking skills of their staff, and help them to learn to make the ‘right’ decisions, especially in stressful situations. Then the let them do that. Even when they make the ‘wrong’ decision.
Lesson 8 – Think Strategically: The role of a leader is to see the big picture and then communicate that to everyone else on your team as a compelling vision – one that they embrace and want to help bring to reality. At times you need to be innovative in how you communicate that strategy and get buy-in from your staff. In the early years of soccer, before our league acquired a large property of their own, games were played in multiple towns all over the region. One of those fields was in the flight path for Scott Air Force Base, and inevitably a plane would fly over during a game. Play generally stopped as kids on both sides of the field gazed skyward to see the plane. After the first time that happened to our team, I gathered them at practice and told them this was our secret strategy. I told them that the next time it happened, all the kids on that other team were going to stop and look at that plane. But us? When we heard the sound of a plane it was a signal to us to not look up. Because we were about to get an opportunity to score a goal while the other kids weren’t watching. Worked like a charm.
Lesson 9 – Play Your Talents: Most of the other coaches moved their players around a lot and let them play different positions. Maybe I should have done that, but I didn’t. In that first year I watched each one closely and I started to see who had what natural talents. Who was aggressive enough to go against defenders in driving to the goal or perfect the technique of an effective throw-in? As a result, Brian became our goalie. He was a natural. He begged me to let him play forward and initially I gave him some opportunities to do so. But what he was really good at was stopping the other team from scoring. To the point that he regularly shut out the other guys. A great leader identifies the natural talents of their ‘players’ and then helps them to further nurture and develop what they already do best.
Lesson 10 – Know Your Job, But Play As a Team: But while individual talent is important, a great leader brings all of those individuals together and helps them function as a team – because their collective impact far exceeds what they could do alone. I used foosball as a natural example for my soccer players. They could see that each of the players had a “position” to play and we talked about the importance of each. But then we noted how they were linked together. How the ‘line’ of players on a foosball table move together, and how we should do the same on the field. Backing each other up. Shifting to fill in the gaps. Making sure the field remains covered while the most appropriate person at the time pursues the ball.
Lesson 11 – Be A Person of Character: Eddie Haskell was overwhelmingly polite to Mr. & Mrs. Cleaver, but once he was behind closed doors with Wally and The Beaver his true character surfaced. “Character” is who you are at the very core. I tried to model that and expected the same from them. Like being a good sport and genuinely kind towards other teams. Not arguing with the referees. Or not hogging the ball. On my team, everyone started at some point and everyone played. I tried to keep everyone’s time on the field relatively equal. The ‘best’ player had to sit on the bench just like everyone else and my own son didn’t get special treatment. I saw soccer as a way to help develop character – the foundation of who these children were – and part of the base upon which they would build their adult lives.
Lesson 12 – Be Inspiring: One of the primary roles of leadership is to inspire others. You need to have a compelling vision of the future and communicate that effectively to everyone else, but you then need to inspire them to join you in that mission. You can buy the ‘hands’ of your employees, but you want their ‘hearts’ and ‘heads’ as well. All in, willing and ready to follow you and collectively achieve your ultimate goal. In soccer, my game plan became simple, and I laid it out before every game. “Score first. Score one more than the other team.” It inspired my team to come into the game fired up, aggressively pursuing that first goal. Their intensity often caught the other team off guard. And they dominated play until they put the ball in the net. Then they might naturally back off a bit. Take it a little easy. But if the other team scored and tied the game, the intensity resurfaced. Because they needed to end the game with at least one more goal than the other team. And doing so at that point in time did not seem like an insurmountable task. They simply needed to score one more goal.
Lesson 13 – Sometimes You Will Fail: In our first season we won only one game. But within a few years we were undefeated – that is until we played the team in the black jerseys. Our kids had learned how to play soccer. They were great at their individual positions and as a team. They played with intensity and focus, but had fun. And then they started to get cocky and to think that they were invincible. But when you are #1, everyone wants to knock you off the pedestal. And for us, it was the team in the black jerseys. We only lost that one game that season. I didn’t let that ‘failure’ define us. I used it as a teachable moment. To learn from it, put it into perspective, and appreciate what we had accomplished.
I gave up coaching soccer in 1992. Afterwards, I missed being called “Coach”. It was never a role to which I had aspired. But it was one that I loved. The title had meaning not because it was bestowed upon me by the league, but because I had earned it through the love and respect of my players.
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