Management Lessons on a Soccer Field

You can learn lessons from just about anywhere.  Sometimes the lessons are positive and intentional.  Sometimes they are ones that you absorb based on someone else’s bad actions – what not to do.  I have been coaching an Under 9 Boys soccer team for nearly 3 months now and have both learned new and had reaffirmed old management lessons.  It was an unexpected benefit from volunteering.

Soccer has always been my sport, although I lost track of it for a few decades.  But it has always struck me as a good team-oriented game that had few barriers for participation.  I was delighted when, after the World Cup, my kids wanted to give it a whirl as they ended another athletic activity.  As my dad had done, I volunteered to coach in lieu of being part of a random parental rotation.

The first game was a lot like becoming a manager for the first time: totally overwhelming.  Our team was up against a team coached by someone who had on their LinkedIn profile “winning youth soccer coach“.  On one hand, I found that hilarious (and more so, as the season has progressed).  But it’s only when I was in the middle of the game that I realized how unprepared I was.  When can I substitute (not on the other team’s possessions)?  How do I manage the time to make sure every boy gets equal time?  How do I balance the clamoring of the boys on the sideline with paying attention to the game itself?  By the end of that first day, I was brain-fried in a way I hadn’t been in a long time.

It was uncomfortable.  That was the first reminder – sometimes when you start a new role as a manager, or leading a permanent or temporary team, you don’t know everything.  I’d played soccer for a decade, then coached a year or two, then ref’ed.  Perhaps because of what I felt was my depth of knowledge, I was sideswiped by demands I’d failed to prepare for.   That discomfort has disappeared over time as I started to find ways to deal with those information gaps and, in some cases, anxieties.

Everyone is equal.  Or isn’t.  Our team covers two years, so some boys are not only larger but may have played longer.  Some are younger, both emotionally and physically.  While our league demands equal time for each kid, their skills aren’t equal.  As with any team in any workplace, I found that I had to try to balance each week’s line-up so that strong kids were spread out and could set an example for younger kids, who could learn as they saw others play.  Anyone who has seen an Under 9 team play will understand how close games can veer to chaos.  Anyone who has managed a team in a workplace will probably have seen that having the right skill sets doesn’t mean that your team mates don’t have weaknesses.  It has been a good lesson to remember to keep those strengths and weaknesses that every boy brings to the game in balance.

The boys notice when they see unfairness and they call me out on it:  “He’s played more than me,” or “he always takes the penalty kicks.”  No-one likes unfairness but you can see it in the workplace too.  You may have stronger skilled team mates and rely on them more or give them more interesting projects.  Weaker team mates can resent the attention but, more importantly, they can miss opportunities to grow or be challenged themselves.

In the end, I came up with a formula (I swap 7 guys in and out every 10 minutes in a 40 minute game) that I could explain to the boys so they could know that (a) everyone gets equal time and (b) they have to wait 10 minutes, and not nag me about going on.  I also assigned positions in advance and wrote them on a whiteboard beside our indoor field; any boy who wants to see when they play and where can look at it to their heart’s content.  I can focus on the game and the clock.

Two weeks ago, a boy asked me:  “Why does that team have four coaches?”  Then he followed that with, “In another league I’ve played in, the parents aren’t allowed to yell at the players.”  When I volunteered to coach, it was just me.  One dad offered but my sense was that he wanted to coach his son, not the team as a whole.  Sometimes when you’re managing, there are others who want to tell you how to do your job.  I’ve always had good managers to work with, both above me and reporting to me, and have tried to only get involved when I need to.  But you can take that management style for granted.

When you see a bunch of parents “coaching” from the sidelines, whether in the role of coach or not, it’s a reminder to think about your own approach.  The boys remind me of most teams.  They know what the goal is (literally) and they understand how to achieve it.  But the method changes each time.  Sometimes your plan to kick or pass or whatever doesn’t work.  Sometimes you’re still trying to figure out what your team mates can do and whether you can rely on them.  I may now err on the under-coaching side, but I notice when boys are yelled at to “shoot”, or “pass”, or other obvious things.  The people you’re working with, under 9 boys or adults, will probably have a good idea of what the goal is.  They will learn more if they’re allowed to learn how to get to the goal without being micromanaged along the way.

What I’ve realized is that, just as in a work place, it can be more important to just cheer your team on.  The recognition of a good attempt or a good score is the same.  Taking the time when the boys swap in and out to praise specific individual work takes no time at all.  And praise in front of team mates needn’t be an event, but everyone will hear it.  If people really don’t know what to do, managers need to help them.  Then they need to let them get the work done, and reinforce the successes they achieve.

And if they don’t know, boys will ask.  “Where does a forward play,” one asked me.  We have 5-15 minutes of practice per game and not much to bring everyone up to speed, particularly those in their first season.  Workplaces can create an environment where dumb questions are suppressed because you think that everyone else knows and you don’t want to expose that you don’t.  Boys don’t worry about that.  It’s a reminder that you can get into a mindset, particularly when dealing with specialists, that everyone shares your knowledge base.

Perhaps the most important reminder I’ve had is how little credit managers can take for a result.  When you put 7 boys on a field, you never know what’s going to happen.  In 40 minutes, all the team dynamics – the ball hog, the day dreamer, the learner – will run into the dynamics of the other team.  There’s no way to anticipate what will happen. As a coach, the most I can do is try to put the right mix of players on and hope that their dynamics mesh.

Everyone will use their best judgment to get to the goal (again, literally).  Admittedly, in Under 9 soccer, the randomness and chaos far surpasses anything in the work place that I’ve ever experienced.  But there’s still the sense that, once the starting whistle blows, you’re mostly an observer.  Sometimes you get the result you hoped for, and for the reasons expected.  Sometimes it’s for other reasons.

While I hope that I have always done a good job of letting my boss know about the success of my teams (rather than positioning them as my own successes), coaching has really laid this bare.  I bring something to the team but, at the end of the day, my contribution is integral but far smaller than circumstances and team abilities contribute to our wins and losses.  Sometimes we can think our own expertise or contribution has had a greater impact, but coaching has certainly highlighted for me the randomness of success.

It’s been quite an experience.  I regretted volunteering in week two and three.  I thanked my dad – nearly 30 years on – for having coached me for as long as he did.  And then I started to hit my own stride.  Now that we’re halfway through the season, I’ve settled into my role.   In this it has been very much like taking on a new job.  I’m enjoying it more and worrying less about how things run, so long as the boys are having fun.  When I have opportunities to lead teams or take on new roles, I’ll keep my boys in mind and remember that, regardless of the age, the challenges and rewards of managing teams often remain the same.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.