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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