Leadership Lessons from Coaching Kids
I had the pleasure of being the assistant coach for my sons’ under-11 soccer team this spring. I should mention it was my first time coaching. I’ve managed employees for years, but the experience amplified some points about leading a team. Given the many parallels between business and sports, I thought I would share the insights this experience reinforced.
1. Keep things simple
Kids have short attention spans. That’s a known fact. Nevertheless, I observed coaches giving their teams long speeches and trying to get them to run complicated plays. Aside from the fact that lengthy speeches sound like white noise to kids (think of the adults in Charlie Brown), complicated concepts are hard to remember. With that in mind, I focused on repeating a few very simple sayings such as:
- Offense: “Keep shooting at the goal.”
- Mid-field: “Attack the ball and get it downfield.”
- Defense: “Stay between the ball and the goal.”
- Goalie: “Get your body in front of the ball.”
I repeated these lines over and over again. By about halfway through the season, I started asking the players “What’s your job?” and they would reply “Stay between the ball and the goal!” or whatever line I had been driving into their head. Simplicity works because it is memorable.
As a leader, figure out the key actions that each person needs to do for the team to be successful. It should be different based on each person’s role. The rule is to keep the messaging simple and drive it home over and over again. “Bob, did you make your 20 calls today?” “Bob, did you make your 20 calls today?” After a while, flip the question around to test them “Bob, what are you going to do today?” “Boss, make 20 calls!” When that happens, you know Bob is getting the message.
2. Understand the 20/60/20 rule
Here it is: 20% of players are exceptional and go above and beyond, 60% get the job done, and 20% do more harm than good. This concept is something that GE’s former CEO Jack Welch preached all the time. This composition (+/- 10%) is true throughout society too.
The top 20% are stretchers. They push and pull the rest of the team forward. Their skill, passion, and competitiveness stand out on the field. They practice daily, they play hard, and they make things happen because they truly love the game.
The middle 60% are the body of the team. They show up on time and give 100% while they are on the field. They do the job they are assigned. They are not going to win the game for you, but they help create the environment for a team to win.
The bottom 20% hold the team back. They may not like the game, or they may just not have what it takes. Regardless of motives, they can’t keep up with the pace and make costly mistakes that affect the team.
It’s hard for a team to win without the exceptional players, and hard to win with really bad players. Games are won and lost on the top and bottom 20%. During our season, we won games when the worst players were absent and lost games when the best players were absent. When winning hinges on one player, it makes it obvious that all players are not equal.
As a leader, reward and praise the top 20%, keep the 60% engaged and get the “do more harm than good” players off the team. If you really want to win, recruit and retain more of the exceptional players. It ain’t easy finding them though!
3. Play to positions
Watching little kids play sports is like watching moths circle a flame – wherever the ball goes, so go all the kids. As they get older, they eventually begin to learn the value of playing positions. Such was the case this year for my boys. It was exciting for me as their coach to begin the journey of teaching them the value of learning a specialized skill. One of my boys chose goalie and the other chose forward wing.
Picking the position is the easy part; learning to stay in the position (i.e. their “lane”) was the hard part. Players naturally want to be where the ball goes. It’s really hard to win a game if everyone follows the ball up and down the field though. If the offense runs back to play defense, then you don’t have anyone in a position to score. Vice versa with the defense.
The same is true in business – if your salespeople are handling service or doing admin work, then the business is going to struggle with growth. You must create the systems where people play to a position and then teach your team to stay in their lane. You, as the leader, need to stay in your lane too. You can’t be focused on running the business when you’re bogged down servicing clients. Playing to positions is essential to growing your agency.
4. Use a playbook
After a few games, I started noticing some repetitive mistakes our players were making. Our best player, who was the center forward, started kick-off by booting the ball downfield…to no one. The ball quickly went into the possession of the other team. It happened numerous times. My son, the forward wing, was good at dribbling downfield but he kept getting trapped against the sideline. Other kids kept doing foolish mistakes over and over. It finally dawned on me that the kids didn’t know how to handle specific situations because we didn’t give them a playbook.
In a sport or business, the playbook tells the team what to do or say and when to do it. Your job as the leader is to document all the processes in your business. That should include the steps to take in a process and the scripts for your staff to handle objections and complaints that they may run into on a daily basis. The strength of a team, in addition to increased efficiency, is in the increased effectiveness of each member by pooling the experience and wisdom of all team members. Have you written your agency’s playbook?
5. Show up early
Being that it was my first time coaching, I only expected the team to be on time for practice and games. Experienced coaches made their kids show up 30 minutes early to every practice and every game. We spent the first 15 minutes of practice warming up, whereas the other teams were well into running drills. During games, those teams promptly scored on us in the first 3 minutes of play because their kids were in “game mode” while our kids were still thinking about their bed since they just woke up.
The “show up early” principle translates to every day in a business. As a leader, train your team to show up before the office opens or before a sales meeting. People need time to warm up, get organized and get in game mode. If showing up is half of the battle, showing up early and prepared is the other half!
6. Come prepared
I will be honest – we, the coaches, were disorganized. Neither I, nor the other coach, studied the rules of the game or spent much time preparing for practices. I started the season with good intentions. I had a clipboard, a whistle, and a notebook of practice drills but stopped using them as the season progressed. After a few weeks, I thought the kids were getting it, so I didn’t need to be so regimented. That was a mistake!
During one practice mid-season, the head coach and I walked onto the field without a plan and ended the practice feeling like 50% of the time was wasted. The kids felt the same way too.
A few weeks later, we were short 4 players for a game and scrambled every time we had to substitute kids in because we didn’t bring a roster. If we were prepared, we would have worked out the positions and quarters in advance so that the kids had clear instructions. Instead, we created chaos and what should have been an easy win ended as a tie.
In our worst loss, we had 5 penalties called on us. It was embarrassing because some of the calls were based on rules we didn’t know. Our team got more and more frustrated with each mistake and the game spiraled out of control in favor of the opposing team. Had we studied the rules, we would have relayed them to the team during practices.
As a leader, be prepared every day. Ask yourself (1) What needs to happen so that the team wins today? and (2) What do I have to do to help each person be successful? Successful entrepreneurs either rise early or work late preparing for the day ahead. Preparation is fundamental to success.
7. Be tough
Roughly half of our team had never played soccer before, so we thought we would focus on letting them have fun. What I observed watching the winning coaches was a different approach: they were tough. They made the team show up early. Players that messed up, got called out. Players that goofed off, ran laps. In fact, the coaches’ toughness was proportional to the ranking of the teams at the end of the season.
Now, I have no problem being tough on my own children. I subscribe to another Jack Welch philosophy, “kick them in the pants and then give them a hug.” I was just reluctant about treating someone else’s kid that way because they may end up hating the sport if they don’t understand my motivation.
We ended the season losing all but 3 games. If the kids were able to do it all over again, I believe that each one of them would have traded getting yelled at a few times or made to run laps knowing it would translate to a few more wins. Why? Because losing is NOT fun!
As a leader, set high expectations, push your team, and demand that everyone gives their best. In the end, the tough love approach will produce results and your team will thank you for helping them become the best they could be. And if winning isn’t a priority to them, they shouldn’t be on your team.
The Bottom Line
Leaders create the stage for a team to be successful. You have to coach the team with simple, repetitive messaging that drives home the behaviors and actions needed to succeed. You have to understand the composition of a team, keep everyone engaged in the mission, reward players for their contributions, and remove the players that are harming the team. You have to prepare for each day and have a playbook that details processes and scripts that help your team achieve success. You have to be tough, set the bar high, push people to bring their best every day, and hold them accountable with clear rewards and penalties. Regardless of how a leader makes people feel, being part of a losing team is no fun. Just about everyone prefers to be part of a team that is winning in achieving its mission!
P.S. I finished writing this article while at an M&A association conference in Denver, CO where the ABC team won “Top M&A Firm” for the second year in a row. Perhaps my first year coaching soccer wasn’t great but this is my 15th year in the M&A business. One bonus lesson is that success comes over time with consistent hard work and practice!
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