Friday, June 27, 2014

Learning From Champions Part Two

The Parallels between Football Teams and Teams in Organizations / Companies

There is so much leaders can learn from sports teams. Staying with world cup football here are some more insights. Building upon last week's post "Learning from Champions" these are:
The Trainer and his co-trainer team
The trainer of a football team has other experts assisting. There are co-trainers, fitness coaches, and also an expert physician. The trainer is responsible for leading the team, for the system to play, and for strategy and tactics. Yet, he relies on the expert advice of these personally selected trusted people: his trainer staff. Contrary to the belief of most people a great, exceptional trainer is not the ‘lonesome rider’. The opposite is true. Team playing begins at the top. Even though the final decisions are made by the trainer. For instance, the decisions who plays and who is reserve, what system is going to be played, and so forth. That’s his responsibility. That’s what leading is about.
The Team dissected into its parts
Individual Level:
A football team consists of 11 players and each one has a certain position in the team. A position where the player is best at. Great trainers have a highly developed sense of recognizing what a player is best at. Often better than the player himself. Top teams consist of top players. A-players who know how to play. They started already in their childhood. They are both: extremely talented and also hard workers. They understand the importance of training. They are not easy to lead. A trainer has to earn their respect and develop mutual trust. Each player has a different personality. And the trainer must be able to tune in into their frequency, so to speak.
Team Level:
A football team consists of three different parts: Defence, Midfield, Offence. In the early days of football this was easily recognizable. The offence, the strikers, were the heros. They were the more gifted players. The midfield always had the more intelligent players. The midfield was the link between defence and offence. The defenders were the most robust players in charge of stopping the opposing offence, no matter what. The entire game was more static. It had a clear role allocation. And clear, visible boundaries between the different parts.
That has gone through a dramatic change. Modern football has become incredibly fluent. The teams must play as a team in its entirety. Sure, there is still defence - midfield - offence. Yet, the boundaries almost disappeared, became fuzzy.
The brain of the game is the midfield. That’s the place, the linchpin if you so will, where the game is controlled. Highly sophisticated movements on the field are initiated here. It’s where creativity resides. Yet, it requires from all players, no matter what part, the intelligence to understand and anticipate, And it requires the highest technical level and talent to execute. The more accurate and speedy the passing of the ball becomes, the higher the ball possession.
Defence and midfield are creating the spaces the offence, the strikers, need to score. If they fail, scoring becomes very difficult. On top of this the players need the ability to read, understand, and anticipate the opposing team. The better they are at this, the higher the probability of success, of winning, becomes.
That’s in a few sentences what the trainer has to create and build. And playing in the champions league, playing at a world cup requires a lot of training and a lot of brain power. To reach such a level only a few trainers, true leaders, are capable of. And for that they need the best A-players they can get. In essence, the team must play like an orchestra. That’s what great leaders and trainers create.
The Role of Physical and mental fitness
Football is an exhausting game. A player gotta run 90 minutes … and then still must have enough strength for a possible extra time of 30 minutes. And the mental strength for a penalty shoot out after 120 minutes, if it comes to that.
Physical and mental fitness are of the utmost importance. Talent alone doesn’t do the job. The hard work is the daily training to build both, physical and mental strength. Part of that training is also to learn how to handle aggression against oneself. In the heat of the battle that happens. When you are fouled the 10th time in a row you might feel like retaliating, which is a surefire way to get a red card. Hence, keeping cool and having self awareness and self control is essential. One has to remember: when emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.
Another important part is that we are all human beings. There are days when we just excel in everything we do. And then there are these days when we just suck. It’s difficult for oneself to recognize these times, when we suck, before it actually happens. Hence, it becomes one of the most difficult tasks of the trainer and leader to see these subtle changes in the players. When he does, a decision can be made to let someone else play instead.
And that is another aspect the trainer and leader has to take care of. Only if physical and mental fitness of each one of the team is reached, readiness of the team can be established. Hence, besides the team playing you need always a plan B, need reserves.
Orchestrating the Play
Orchestrating the play is the trainers and leaders responsibility. The trainer decides the system to play. And the trainer decides which symphony. It depends a lot on the opponent one is facing. And it also depends on circumstances like the stadium, the weather, etc. And don’t underestimate the psychological advantage of a home game. The more data you have, the better your orchestrating becomes. And the more effective your training. Yet, great trainers and leaders understand that they can’t control most of the factors. Hence, flexibility of thinking of each player must also be trained.
Strategy and Tactics
One of the core tasks of the trainer and leader. For instance, when you are qualified for the world cup you have to, ideally, win 7 games in a row to become champion. That’s a herculean task given the fact that you have to play against the best of the world. Players get exhausted, physically, mentally, or both. Or they get injured. The trainer has to prepare for that, must have contingencies.
And then he has to play his system with a different strategy and different tactics depending on the opponent. You can’t play against Brazil the same way you would play against the Netherlands. Each opponent requires a different strategy and different tactics.
Sticking to the strategy and yet keeping the most flexibility in adapting to the evolving game is crucial. The only constant is change.
The overall goal in a world cup is, of course, winning it. Hence, your general strategy must take into account that your team must play consistently on the highest level. To ensure that the trainer must also know when it is convenient to slow down and only do what’s necessary. You don’t want your team to die in beauty. Never lose sight of your overall goal.
Executing the Play
The truth of the matter: executing the play. The trainer and leader can only do so much. The team is on the field and the team executes what has been trained for, They score or they don’t. Not the trainer. Yet, it remains the full responsibility of the trainer. Hence, each team has one or two field leaders. The team captain and his co. Picking the right field leaders is crucial for success. As Napoleon Bonaparte said: “Picking as your field commanders the bravest instead of the smartest always leads to blunder.”
Often, trainers feel that they should reward a great player with being the captain. That distinguishes great leaders from good leaders. They pick those able to accomplish this task on the field. And, for instance, as good as your goal keeper might be, he is not the right guy to become captain. You cannot lead a football team from behind. The ideal field leaders are capable of translating the strategy and tactics they trained into a smashing success. And they are also willing and capable of making their own decisions based on how the game is developing. And they know how to drive a game home.
Exceptional football teams always have great field leaders. And they know one thing: it ain’t over until it’s over. In other words they never, ever give up. That fighting spirit, that character is what makes a team standing out, makes them champions. That’s what great trainers and leaders are capable of creating and instilling in a team.
There are striking similarities between football teams and teams in organizations and companies. My aim with my description above was to raise your awareness for that. On top of that I want to trigger your own thoughts and how your teams compare to these champions.
Times have changed for football. And times have changed for everything else. Exceptional leaders are leading, training and coaching their teams. And exceptional leaders have also their own trainers and coaches. People they trust completely and that provide them with honest feedback.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning from Champions

It’s this time again. Football World Cup. No, I am not talking about American Football, which, by the way, is played mostly with the hands. I am talking about the real thing. The championship where the best national teams from all over the world meet. And there is a lot to learn for leadership by closely observing football teams.
Football is a great example of a complex environment. The teams have to deal with ambiguity, volatility, and uncertainty. All the time. Different opponents. Different climates. Different playing fields. The influence of the weather being it sunshine, rain. wind, heat, humidity, cold, even snow at times. The changing behavior of the ball depending on its spinning, the airflow around it influencing the flight path, or a sudden wind gust. Physics plays a big role. And the opposing team doing everything to disrupt your play and get into ball possession. And it’s never easy to score. How about that for complexity?
The role of the trainer and coach
The trainer of the team is also their leader. The trainer makes the difference. The difference of making the team soar or making them go down. The trainer builds the team. The trainer selects the players for the team. What kind of system to play and what strategy and tactics to use is the responsibility of the trainer. And one of the core tasks is to put the best player on the most important position. For that you must know and understand each one of your players. You must know them better than they know themselves. You must be able to see the individual potential and then make it count. When it comes to the top teams, also the top national teams, you have certainly to deal with A-players. Players that belong to the illustrious group of the best of the best. And they know it and are proud of it. Players that have big egos. Players that want to only play together with the best.
Being the trainer and leader of such players is quite a challenge. Hence, only a true leader, a leader with character and personality, can lead such a team by earning their respect. The respect of a top player recognizing the greater experience, knowledge, know-how, and skills of the trainer. Only then, when the trainer is perceived and accepted as the leader, the team is able to pull off their full potential.
What distinguishes a top football trainer and coach?
  • The ability of knowing and understanding the essence of the game and focusing on that.
  • The ability of translating this knowledge and understanding into a winning system on the playing field.
  • The ability of knowing defeat, learning from it, and using it to become even better.
  • The ability of knowing and understanding each player’s strength and weaknesses better than they themselves do.
  • The ability to build a world class team consisting of the top A-players and lead them to sustained success.
  • The ability of enjoying every bit of his work.
  • The ability to know the right time to relinquish his job and leave, because he has given everything to the team and there is nothing more left he could do.
Hence, when you are leading a team, understand that you are also their trainer and coach. Leading is a very demanding task. It doesn’t stop. It’s 24/7. Take the perspective of a football trainer. Build a world class team. Inspire them and be inspired by them. Train and lead your team for each game to come. Train them and lead them to win. Train them and lead them to the champions league, to the world cup. Whatever that might be in your business. And enjoy the ride together with them.
Training and leading the team
Above I mentioned above the complex environment. Yet, this is not something a top trainer would waste time with explaining it to the players. He knows that he has the best players. And A-players that know exactly what they are doing. It would be like explaining to fish what the substance called water is, they are swimming in. It wouldn’t make them better swimmers.
Likewise, with a football team there is no need for a complete and deep understanding of complexity.  And let’s face it: most people don’t understand complexity in depth anyway. Physicists do and for their work it’s essential. For all others understanding certain effects in such an environment is good enough. In other words football players know how to kick the ball to hit a certain area. They don’t need to understand the exact physics of the spinning of the ball.
A football trainer creates a playing system the team is supposed to play. Football is a game that is constantly evolving. The way it’s played nowadays is different to the way it was played 20 years ago. It’s influenced by so many factors. Cultural background of the players plays a big role. The game is interpreted differently depending what nation is playing it. That makes it so diverse, challenging, and exciting. Hence, the system to play is extremely important. And you need to have the right players for the system to be played.
Training and Practice
The task of the trainer is to bring out the best in each one of the players. And the trainer must also assign to each one of them the positions they are best at. For instance, you wouldn’t take a field player and make him goalkeeper. A striker is usually not a good defender. Knowing whom to put in what position is crucial.
Once the team is assembled it’s all about training. Learning, training, practice. In the game it’s then the teams responsibility to play the system as required and trained for. It’s called flawless execution. That’s what a trainer and leader expects. All the time. And there is some more. A great trainer and leader expects his players to put their lives on the line, so to speak. And that’s what A-players do.
What is it football teams are training from dawn to dusk? Standard situations. The players must be able to play the standards blindfolded. Often, that seems boring repeating it over and over again. But then it becomes automatic, becomes a habit. They don’t have to think anymore about it. They just know.
And then the trainer has to prepare them for the unexpected. Prepare them for those difficult situations that no one wants to have. But they are happening. A player is injured. A penalty against you is given. You thought you were winning and suddenly you are a goal behind. That can be nerve wrecking. You have to prepare your team for that. Overcoming adversities. Turning the game around. Mental strength is important. Character and attitude make the difference. And it begins with the trainer and leader.
The Essence of the Game
What’s the essence of the game? How do you win a game? You must score. Must score more goals than your opponent. Or, as the players say it: “Football is simple. Always score more goals in front, than you receive in the back.” Simple indeed. Yet, sometimes it seems that it’s not understood. Ball possession is very important. Yet, don’t fall too much in love with it and die in beauty. Ball possession is not an end in itself. It must lead to score. Otherwise it’s useless.
When you lead your team think about all that. Don’t bother and bore them too much by inviting ‘experts’ who talk about how incredibly complex the environment is. It won’t help them. And A-players won’t listen to that anyway. They know how to play. Instead, train and lead them to score with concrete measures. Train the standards with them, prepare them for the unexpected. Have a strategy and the tactics worked out. And have a system to execute on it. A great system allowing for flawless execution. Great systems are simple. Mediocre systems are complicated and creating system-immanent errors. Lead them to win and focus on that what get’s them there.
The similarity between football and what companies and organizations are facing is striking. Top teams have also top trainers and leaders, who are training and leading their teams. They want one thing and they want it no matter what: playing in the champions league, playing in the world cup and win the cup. And your job as the leader is to get them there.

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