June 23, 2009

Applied to Soccer

Posted in Life tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:57 pm by lindaslongview

BSC_Ajax_BeforeSemiFinalCalCup_June2009Over years of leadership, I stumbled onto important human traits that should be considered in order to successfully lead:

  1. Relativistic comparisons:   “How people feel about their situation is highly dependent on comparison to others.  Thus, in order to achieve good staff (team) morale, it is important to consider how to minimize negative comparisons now *and* in the future.”  (Relativistic Comparisons, blog topic from last week).
  2. Loss aversion:  “Our aversion to loss is a strong emotion…one that sometimes causes us to make bad decisions.“ (Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Ch. 7, pg.134, see his YouTube video explaining the difference between gain and loss perspectives)

These traits lead to key long view leadership principles:

  1. Learn the strengths of the individuals of your team and leverage individual strengths to achieve team goals. Be fair from the perspective of your team.  Be clear on expectations, reward excellence, and avoid marginalization.
  2. Strike a fair balance between competing goals and demands of multiple masters.  Be fair from the perspective of your customer (whoever pays for the service is the customer).  Be clear on deliverables, achieve excellence in customer service, and respect tiered pricing.
  3. Have a plan that considers likely contingencies to ensure balance.  (Do not assume that you can achieve balance under fire.)

This past weekend, I found myself observing these leadership principles in a very different domain than technology development.  I felt them as a soccer mom.

The goals of a U14 (under fourteen) Class 1 (highly competitive league) are twofold:  win games and develop players.  A soccer team fields 11 players at a time, but carries a roster between 14 – 17 kids to allow for substitution (rest and injury).  The coach’s leadership job on game day requires allocation of playing time to effectively win games and develop players.  Players sitting on the bench do not develop (get better), but playing the strongest players improves the odds of winning games.  This creates the inherent tension between the two goals (win games vs. develop players) with “playing time” being the valued (and measureable) scarce resource.

My son’s coach is an excellent well-trained soccer player with outstanding credentials.  During training, he provides excellence in drills, discipline, and development feedback.  At game time, although he is well-intentioned to achieve balance between the competing goals, he can become loss averse with respect to winning – can’t we all?!  Given the much stronger aversion to loss, it is no surprise that long-term needs for gaining player development become subverted for short-term loss aversion during games.   Without discipline and planning, the long view suffers…

Although my son is an excellent soccer player, combining speed, agility, and accurate ball placement, he is small of stature and is considered less aggressive than some of the other boys.  He follows the expectations set by the coach and works hard to receive as much playing time as possible.  He is loss averse to playing time both because he recognizes the vicious cycle of dis-improvement and because he feels “unfairness” (relativistic comparison) when the other boys receive substantially more playing time.   With each successive “loss” of playing time he is further marginalized, thereby jeopardizing his love and passion for the game – a serious long view consequence of many small seemingly insignificant slights.

This past weekend resulted in an acute amplification of the phenomena…

My son’s soccer team traveled over a hundred miles from home to play a several day soccer tournament.  Since not all team members could attend the tournament, extra players were recruited to “guest” at the tournament for the team.  The team had 16-18 total players available for the tournament games.  My son averaged 12.5 minutes of playing time per game (25% of 50 mins/game) with ZERO in the semi-final.  Guest players each received substantial playing time (>75%) in all games including the semi-final.

It was a very unpleasant 2-hour ride home after the loss in the semi-final.  Although I am confident that my perspective differs from those who received adequate playing time because they did not suffer marginalization – they have the perspective of “gain” whereas I have the long perspective of “loss,” a line was crossed that prompted me to write this blog post.

From my perspective, there was an omission of long view leadership principles when substantial playing time for the guest players led to permanent team members playing ZERO in the semi-final (scarce resource allocation):

  1. Marginalization was allowed. Receipt of ZERO playing time in a semi-final is a vote of “no confidence” and is severely marginalizing in the context of the guest players receiving substantial playing time (relativistic comparison of scarce resource allocation).
  2. Tiered pricing was not respected. Although everyone incurred (equivalent) travel expenses, the guest players, who received “free” coaching and tournament entry (those fees were paid by the team) were treated the same as paying players.  It would be reasonable (to me) to defer to those players who bear the costs of the salary, expenses, and tournament entry to ensure principle #1.
  3. Planning was insufficient. If principles #1 and #2 are compromised, then #3 is insufficient.  Planning is the big differentiator for long view leadership success – if you plan for contingencies you can and will overcome instinctual tendencies.

I don’t want my son to lose his love for this game, which leaves me with the question on how to move forward and regain the positive when I do not have any real influence.  Although I it would be helpful if the coach could:

  • Acknowledge error to my son and commit to move forward positively.
    OR
  • Explain to my son that the team fit is no longer correct and then offer to help place him on a team that will value him (before we pay the $1400 fee for the fall season!).

I am not sure that will happen spontaneously.  I would love to be able to Teach Concepts, Explain Specifics, and Gain Acceptance (Relativistic Thinking), but I am not the one with the relationship with the coach.

Can a 13-year-old navigate this effectively?  What is your perspective?  Do you have advice?

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7 Comments »

  1. Mike said,

    Linda, as a long time soccer fan who’s traveled to support the “Yanks” at four successive world cups (US-94, France 98, Japan/Korea 02, and Germany 06), I can say that your issue of the loss of long view in leadership is a well played theory as to precisely why the US will never win a world cup, at least in my life time. Perhaps it is a cultural American thing, but at the critical youth development stages in this country, soccer coaching is far too focused on results while not enough is given to individual player development and for joy of the game. Particularly at the youth competitive level. At this level, it is common that the technical skills, flair, vision, and creativity (in addition to speed, athleticism, and endurance) needed to be a world class player are “coached” out of said player in favor of less dynamic traits, such as tactical awareness and positioning. For example, players with an innate skill to dribble, control, or shoot the ball from outside are often told not to “ball hog”, maintin their field position, be more aggrieve, more team oriented, more athletic, and track back more on defense- because the team result is what’s more important.
    For better or worse, this is by and large the youth soccer setup in the US. In fact, it’s what the majority of soccer mom’s and dad’s want (a winner i which to live vicariously through) and it rarely turns out that said players maintains a passion for the game at the end of the experience (soccer is often quoted as being the highest participant sport in this country, yet that rarely correlates into one’s desire to play as a professional, or even becoming a fan). I know this all too well with my stepson who played at a high level too, the parent s intensity on the sidelines almost turning to blows, and “guest” players from Mexico being shipped in for competitions. At the end of the day, my stepson lost his desire to play the game because the game itself was just not fun anymore.
    Just last week, in South Africa’s confederation, as the US was roundly getting slapped around by Italy (3-1) and Brazil (3-0). US fans and pundits alike were calling for Coach Bob Bradley’s head after he failed as a leader to prescribe to the qualities you pointed out above. –Marginalization being a main contributor to failure (consistently playing Beasely and Dempsey after months of poor performances, benching up and coming players who proved their worth while sticking with others due to loyalty, playing people in positions ill suited to their talents). succeeding in sending mixed signals and internal squabbles which culminated in the team effectively giving up on the coach’s plans and vision. In fact, it wasn’t until the players and coach was roundly criticized by the fans and media for playing w/o heart, purpose, intensity, or pride in wearing the colors, did the team “man up” in time to beat Egypt 3-0 in its last game and awkwardly advancing to a semi final game against Spain tomorrow-). As a serious underdog based on how the “team” failed to work as one, I think the coach should be telling his players, “go out there and above all, have some fun.”
    I think it is paramount that your son enjoy his experience. If this is not the right team and the coach continues to undermine your son’s joy of the game (after all, that is the point right?) then perhaps you can help him find a team where he can blossom and be creative technically, a team that does not put so much emphasis on results. Because in the long view, US soccer’s success will rely on it. 🙂

    • lindaslongview said,

      Wow! Thanks for the detailed view from further up the road. I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to provide me guidance. Leadership matters even in soccer!

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  3. Gayle said,

    I have to agree, for many of the sports in which children in the US are involved, there is way too much emphasis placed on winning now and no long term vision for developing the children. Why would anyone continue to participate in a sport they don’t enjoy or don’t get to participate in? While I’m not a proponent of playing everyone equally, I am a proponent of planning how to and actually developing children involved in sports. I think you send the wrong message when you show by your actions that winning is everything. Yes, having played on many teams in my life, I will heartily concur that its fun to win. But it was more important to me to play than to “sit on the bench” and watch the team win. I personally chose to play on a lower tier team just so I could play.
    With the emphasis placed on winning in many sports arenas, I think coaches/managers are going to have to constantly battle the short term vs the long term view.

  4. lindaslongview said,

    Indeed, it is a constant battle between short vs. long! Thanks for your perspective.

  5. Andreas said,

    Linda,
    Your articulate impression of what transpires in youth sports is an unfortunate influence on both the physical and psychological (psycho-social) development of our children. From a child’s perspective, participation should be both fun and rewarding. How these factors are defined is up to the parents and the environment in which they create for their children.Their physical skills should be the focus, as well as their psycho-social development because children are constantly looking to find their fit and how they match up in the world. However, I can say that our society has become too caught up in the “win-at-all-costs” mentality and that is ultimately displayed in how youth coaches handle their teams. Children also have slowly adopted this perspective as well and cherish the win over the companionship.This is evident in the increasing amount of “type-A” parents who have their children compete, train and engage in private lessons on a year-around basis. After all, it is MY CHILD that ultimately will become a professional athlete and I will be the parent who paves the path to his/her career and success.
    Because of the environment we have created (which I think is artificial), we as a society have closed our doors, kept our children inside, and fear for their safety. As a result, in order to enable them to find their niche in the world, we are obligated to schedule them in sports or other organized activities. They no longer have the opportunity to find themselves on their own amongst their peers without adult influences. They are always around other coaches, teachers, parents, etc. and are not afforded the opportunity to “play” on their own where they have the ultimate control. For example, when I was growing up, I got my ball after school, knocked on Tommy’s door, then we got Johnny, Timmy and a whole host of other friends. We picked our own teams, officiated our games by ourselves, fought, made-up, and continued. It established a pecking order and was a dynamic interaction that lead to our social development and enabled us to find our place in the world. Social harmony was created. That responsibility now lies completely in the hands of adults, and we are reliant upon their influences on our children, which unfortunately can be diminished to the lowest common denominator of playing time. Children have no opportunity to “gauge” one another other than how they are perceived by the coach or how much playing time they get.
    Having been a participant in youth sports, inter-collegiate athletics and having coached both at the collegiate and competitive level I can say that my experiences as both a player and coach are substantial. But in all fairness to the youth coaches out there, I too have caught myself favoring the stronger players in search of the win and unfortunately sacrificed the individual player. The multiple influences that continually hammered me during these tight games when I opted to play the stronger players are exponentially more severe on more inexperienced coaches. “How will the players perceive me? How will the parents perceive me? Can I live with myself if we lose? I don’t want to be perceived as a loser. How will the club respond to my win/loss record?” These are all questions/influences that psychologically drive a coaches decision and sacrifice the development of the individual. It is unfortunate, but real.
    As for your particular situation, I do feel for your son (and you as well) and feel that a discussion must take place with the coach. Your son and my son will not become professional athletes and it is ultimately their experience playing youth sports that should be the focus. Teamwork, commitment, sacrifice, dedication, a desire to succeed should be the focal points. If his experience does not result in the development of these characteristics, then he is not gaining by staying with this team. While it might be difficult, have that conversation to see where he fits in.

    • lindaslongview said,

      Thank you so much for your very thoughtful reply, especially since you have such a valuable perspective (both as a coach and a parent).

      There is no doubt that it is a challenge to tame the competing masters: win games vs. develop players. Every profession has such a tension, they just have different names! As you point out, it is the “adultization” of youth soccer that has driven us to “playing time” as the valued (and measureable) scarce resource, yet I do think it is the correct one if kids want to “play.” To that end, I value your advice of talking to the coach while being willing to find a new team and we are taking that road.

      Since you coach youth sports (where kids pay to play), I encourage you to share these concepts with your colleagues: Avoid Marginalization, Respect Tiered Pricing, and Have A Plan (to make sure that balance is achieved between win vs. develop). Of course, the dynamics change when the kids are no longer paying to play but are being paid to play; it still requires balance, but new measures become part of the transaction (payment, performance, etc…).

      Thanks again for your input and insight.


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