11 Things Football (Soccer) Can Teach You About Business

My experience playing, and coaching, on the pitch (just about 20 years) is much longer than my time in business, so I’ve taken the opportunity to take learnings from football/soccer  translate them to business. Here are 11, like the number of on-field players, that I find most relevant (in no particular order):

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  1. Total Football a tactical theory employed by Dutch/Netherlands teams of the 60’s/70’s in which any outfield player (all but the keeper) can take over the role of any other player in a team. If all project team members understand the other roles and have a basic set of the skills needed of fellow team members, the team can be flexible and adaptable to defense (obstacles) and back each other up.
  2. Tiki Takaa style of play characterised by short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession. The rate of change, or at least the expectation to adopt change, is ever increasing, so agile methods and delivering in iterations offers opportunities for adapting the product with continued input.  Work the project through the team to get something out there quickly (even in beta, if appropriate), get feedback and continue to optimize. Planning out all the details for a gigantic multi-year program is more likely to fail because the situation, players, or opinions will inevitably change. Perfect is the enemy of good.
  3. Practice Together – You gain reliability and trust when you go through the motions together and build teamwork. Make sure you know what to do with the ball before you get it and others can anticipate your moves which enables them to move without the ball (perform in parallel).
    There is a (basketball or soccer) movie that goes something like:

    • A coach keeps passing the ball farther out than his star player can get to before it goes out of bounds.
    • Coach asks player what he learns, to which the player responds, that “I need to be faster.”
    • The Coach replies, “incorrect – no matter how fast you get, you [and any player] will always be slower than the ball, so you need to utilize your team in order to beat an opponent.”
  4. Diversity Will Help the Team Grow – Having players from different backgrounds or teams, experience levels, or cultures, opens up the team to different styles of play. Appreciate and learn from everyone. That long standing winger might not have as much speed but can teach you the best way to shield the ball. Similarly the rookie might have some innovative footwork that can spice up the play.
  5. Know Your Own Level/Style – If you are setting up a team, make sure the fit is right. A competitive person won’t fit in with a team that is looking to just have a good time on the field and get some exercise. A player that likes to only play for goals, may not fit with a defensive minded team.
    Everyone also needs to have a solid and realistic understanding of their skill level. In high school I went out for varsity with other members of my grade and I just wasn’t ready yet. I was put back down a level but I got more playing time and ended up being a better player once I did make varsity.
  6. Don’t Fight with the Referee – When have you ever seen a referee change his/her mind? Occasionally you may get a make up call, but more often than not, the attitude will result in a red card and your team playing down a player. If you are the captain (respected member of the community) you can question decisions, but until then, be careful when disagreeing with decision making authorities.
  7. Negative Attitude Will Ruin Performance – Get angry with your team mates and the play goes south. You won’t get the ball, and essentially each player is trying to beat the competition single-handedly. Although it goes beyond soccer, the ethic of reciprocity still applies – if you repeatedly don’t pass me the ball when I’m open for a goal, how can you expect me to do the same for you?
  8. Respect Sportsmanship – Don’t play dirty or it catches up in the long run. Unethical individuals (or companies) may profit in the short term, but someone smartens up and those in question end up with a reputation or worse (prison). The Damned United is a great example where Revie ends up failing as England manager, while Clough and Taylor continue their accomplishments.
  9. Communicate/Listen – You can’t always see what’s behind you, but a team mate can tell you an opponent is on your back. But communication is a two way street – listen actively to what your team (this can include the bench) is telling you, don’t just yell commands and expect people to always obey.
  10. Borrow Technique – Study the best – competition and other athletes/sports (i.e. look outside your industry). Watch pro teams and adapt the best to your situation. Case studies can be your friend.
  11. Value the Off Days/Off Season – Like Stephen Covey’s 7th Habit of Highly Effective People, take the time to rejuvenate. Take a session off and heal that ailing injury and your career can last longer. Maintain a healthy life-work balance and regularly renew your energy.

What others come to mind?


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