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Management and Youth Soccer

By Patrick Lencioni - October 2006

Last spring was the big draft. You may have heard about it.

No, I’m not referring to the NFL draft that took place in April, or the NBA edition in June. I’m talking about the Mustang Boys’ Under-nine Soccer draft in Danville, California. That’s right. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’m talking about eight-year-old boys, third graders, actually getting drafted to play “competitive soccer”. And the process by which they’re evaluated, rated and selected is a sight to see.

Imagine a soccer field surrounded by clip-board toting coaches (myself included) who are taking detailed notes as they watch little boys run and kick and dribble and scrimmage against one another. Afterward, those coaches sit down around a table and take turns selecting twelve players for their respective teams.

Luckily for me, I don’t know a great deal about soccer. I played very little of the sport as a grade-schooler, though I’ve coached my sons’ six and seven-year-old teams. But to be fair, the nature of the game played by my boys’ pee wee teams more closely resembled a revolt within a prison than it did a sporting event.

I say that I’m lucky to be ignorant of soccer because it forced me to confront a brutal fact: I was going to be at a distinct competitive disadvantage when it came to assessing the technical skills of the munchkins on my list of draftable players. You see, the other coaches in the league have all played soccer at collegiate, professional or semi-professional levels, and they appreciate the nuances of the sport the way I do basketball or baseball. They are the type of people who not only understand the off-sides rule, but actually like it!

Anyway, to mitigate my soccer naivete, I made a decision that was motivated mostly out of desperation, with a little inspiration mixed in. In essence, I decided to completely change the criteria I would use to evaluate and select players for my team (which, by the way, is called The Swarm).

So, I took the official evaluation form that was given to me before the try-outs, and crossed out the provided category descriptions like “speed”, “field awareness”, “touch” and “power”, and replaced them with others like “attitude”, “hustle” and “skill” and “parents”. Of course, that meant I would have to focus on observing different things than my peers would be looking for during the tryouts.

For instance, instead of spending most of my time looking at the players’ feet, I tended to watch how they treated one another. I wanted to see how they responded when the instructor asked them to help move one of the portable goals or a bag of soccer balls to the other side of the field. I also watched the way they interacted with their parents during breaks. Were they respectful or inattentive? And I wanted to see how hard they played on the field. Did they only run when the ball came to them, or did they get involved and help out on defense?

During breaks I might slyly approach one of the kids and ask, “Hey there Billy, how do you like school?” or “What’s your favorite subject?” And I was looking for someone who would say, “Yeah, I like school a lot”, or “I like math, but not spelling so much.” What I didn’t want was a blank stare or an answer like “nah, the only thing I like is recess.”

Anyway, when the tryouts were over, my assistant coach (who never played or coached soccer before) and I ranked the players from top to bottom, according to our largely attitudinal criteria. When the draft began, we nervously waited our turn. By the time the draft had ended, we had picked more of our top “prospects” than we could have imagined, and assembled a team that we felt had a very high likelihood of being positive and coachable.

Now, don’t misunderstand this philosophy of mine for altruism or nobility. I have a competitive streak too, and I wanted our team to be successful. Certainly, I value character-building and fitness more than winning, but I didn’t want to field a team full of nice kids who couldn’t score goals. And I would be lying if I said we didn’t pay any attention to the basic athletic ability of the players we selected. But those skills took a distant back seat to attitude and demeanor.

As the season approached, my assistant coach and I wondered how much talent we had on the team. We hoped we’d have at least one good goalie and a few natural scorers. By the time our first practiced was upon us, we didn’t know what to expect. So we crossed our fingers, skimmed through “Soccer For Dummies”, and began the season.

That was six weeks ago. As of the writing of this article, we’ve played a little less than half of our games, and a few things have become crystal clear to us.

First, our team is a team. They treat each other well, encourage one another, and seek out collective attention more than individual praise. Second, they’re having fun. They don’t complain about practices, and they enjoy being together. Third, their parents are having fun. Many of them have approached me and my assistant coach to tell us how pleasantly surprised they are about the positive environment on the team, and how much they enjoy being on the sideline with the other parents.

What about the soccer? So far, so good. We’ve only lost three of thirteen games, and we’ve outscored our opponents 24-7. Of course, that is not near as important as the other factors (I have to keep reminding myself and the other parents about that), but it’s a nice confirmation that our attitudinal approach is as viable on the field as it is off of it. It will be interesting to see how the team handles itself when we inevitably lose a few games in a row.

I’d like to say that this early success of the team is a result of great coaching and tactical training. But that just isn’t the case. The fact is, as Jim Collins points out in Good To Great, getting the right people on the bus is the first critical step toward building a great organization of any kind.

Once the bus is full, then it’s all about getting the right people in the right seats (or in our case, the right players in the right positions). But selecting the people who fit your culture, whether they are eight-year-old soccer players, senior executives, teachers or church volunteers, is the first critical step.

Why? Because it’s a lot easier to teach a humble, hard-working young man how to play goalie than it is to teach a spectacular athlete how to listen and put the team before himself. I’m guessing that applies to the organization where you work. Not the goalie part. Well, you know what I mean.