Players Did Four Things Right and the Coach Did One Thing Wrong: Lessons for staff and managers from a meaningless game.
Earlier this week the US men’s national soccer team played a meaningless exhibition match against Paraguay (a “friendly” in soccer-speak). The US won the relatively uneventful game 1-0 in front of a relatively small crowd of about 10,000 in Cary, North Carolina. Neither the US nor Paraguay qualified for the World Cup this summer. The US has an interim coach and most of the US players called in were young. The point of the game was to give newer players experience with the national team and to get a look at players who could make an impact in the next World Cup in 2022.
Managers and organizations can learn four lessons from what the players did right, and one lesson from what the coach did wrong.
The US players played simply. There were some flashes of individual skill and some attempts at high risk/high reward plays, but by and large the US players looked for easy options and executed those options well. It wasn’t fancy, and wasn’t the most exciting soccer to watch, but it worked. It can be tempting to go for the big and flashy – multimedia presentations, over the top events, high risk/high reward marketing stunts, and so forth. But it is usually worth avoiding such temptations. Do the little, boring, things right and the big things will take care of themselves.
The US players were rarely flustered. With few exceptions, if a player got into trouble he didn’t kick at the ball in a panic or try something rash. The player looked for a simple pass or play and executed it. If the best option was to knock the ball out of bounds or kick it downfield as a far as possible that’s what he did, not in a panic but because it was the best option. The best staff do the same. If there’s a problem, solve it. Don’t fluster or fret, don’t call emergency meetings or panic. Look for your best option, find the best colleague in the best position to help, and do that. If the phone in the conference room isn’t working, don’t shout at IT and agitate everyone, just pull out your mobile phone and put it on speaker. If that won’t work, quietly ask someone to get IT while you email the group that the call has been pushed back 15 minutes.
Play for Each Other
The US players moved to fill gaps left by their teammates. If a defender moved up field to support the attack, another player slotted into the gap left by the defender. The players looked at where their teammates were and positioned themselves to help. Playing calm and simple only works if you know you can rely on those around you. That means if the person running a meeting needs IT to fix the phone, slip out and contact IT; don’t wait to be asked, don’t roll your eyes or complain, just do what needs to be done. If a colleague has to unexpectedly travel for a project or client, tell her you will cover the staff meeting she was supposed to run. Figure out where you can be most useful, and go there.
One of my favorite chapters in my forthcoming book Soccer Thinking for Management Success is “Soccer Fields are Loud.” Because the crowd for the game was small, and the microphones were near the field, TV viewers of US vs. Paraguay could hear snippets of chatter on the field. Players were constantly giving each other clear, timely, and actionable input. On a soccer field that means things like “close” (move toward the guy with the ball, I got your back), “man on” (a defender is on your heels), “Brian left” (Brian is open on your left), and so on. Everyone is always coaching and being coached, seeking and providing input. The best offices are the same. Staff should be flagging threats and opportunities for colleagues, letting them know about developments in other fields, giving heads up about potential competitors, pointing out typos on presentations, whatever. Seek and provide input that will help you and your colleagues better accomplish your mission.
If you communicate and work for each other, if you keep calm and do the little things right, you might not win any style awards but you will likely accomplish your goals.
For all the good on the field, the coach on the sidelines made an important mistake. Players play a game at a time, the coach needs to think about the next games.
The job of the player is the job at hand. They are paid to think about the game they are in and doing all they can to win that game. Coaches need to think about the game on the day, and also how that game fits into the rest of the games coming up. Winning a meaningless friendly is meaningless. What matters is qualifying for and doing well at the next World Cup. Dave Sarachan, the interim US coach failed in that regard. Typical soccer games only allow three substitutions, but friendlies typically allow six. The coach said he would use all six to give players time, to see how the new guys worked together, and to really build for 2022. He didn’t do that, he only used four. Players flew in from Europe to sit on the bench rather than be with their professional teams. Having a great seat for a pointless game might be fun, but training every day with your pro team matters. Sarachan’s decision cut against the goals of this specific game, makes the player trust the coach less, and because of how international soccer works can work against a player’s professional career. The coach made a decision in the moment to let the guys on the field continue to play to see how they would play out the game. A good decision if the game mattered. But the game didn’t matter. The US could have won or lost 5-0, or both teams could have agreed to not keep score, and it would have been the same. The coach came into the game with a long term plan, and in the moment abandoned that plan.
This happens all too often in organizations. A single meeting, conference, or presentation quietly moves from one of many means to being an end in itself. Staff focused on a presentation are putting everything they have into that presentation; it is up to the manager to know the importance of that presentation in the overall plan for the organization. That may mean pulling good people off of a project to give less experienced staff valuable experience, a result of which might be a blown presentation and missed opportunity – but without that failure the inexperienced staff will never get better and will never win the larger and more important contract in the future. Similarly, managers may bring in new staff with the promise of providing valuable experience, but then decide that the moment matters more than the promise. A result is that inexperienced staff remain inexperienced, and, worse, may leave for other organizations that provide opportunities for professional growth.
For more lessons for managers and organizations from leaders who have played the game at every level all over the world pre-order Soccer Thinking for Management Success: Lessons for Organizations from the World’s Game.