In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

Now I’m not saying I’m the best youth soccer coach out there. I’m saying coaching from the sidelines is counterproductive and if you aren’t willing to put in the time between games you haven’t earned the right to coach your kid during the game. (Note to sideline parents: read that last sentence again and either pitch in at practice or pipe down during the game. Your player can’t listen to both of us at the same time and I actually know the game plan.)

So I started to learn to coach. I read up-teen books and watched as many videos, and even attended USA Soccer’s licensing program. I got better at it.

One of the things all the professionals emphasize is the importance of individual skills. At younger ages, they teach individual skills even at the expense of team skills. Footwork, shooting, individual defending… these are primary. Tactics and moving as a team is secondary as these are advanced skills that kids can learn later, and build upon the individual skills. This is the sine qua non of youth soccer training, at least according to the experts.

It is also a problem, and explains a lot about American soccer and about the modern workforce.

Kids who are only focused on their own skills pay a lot of attention to what is happening on the ground in front of them when they have the ball, and not much else. You can watch it on any youth soccer field.

Here is what I observed last weekend. When the ball arrived at little Johnny’s feet, his head automatically dropped as his focus shifted. He knew roughly where the goal was because he was looking at it before the ball arrived, but he won’t see it again any time soon. He began to dribble towards the opponent’s goal, vaguely acknowledging the shouts from the crowd and teammates, but only seeing what was in his peripheral vision. His eyes were glued to the ball.

Despite the fact that the defense had shifted all of their players to his side of the field and he was about to be surrounded, Johnny didn’t have a clue. He also couldn’t seem to hear or see his open teammate on the other side of the field who was in a good scoring position. He was fixated on his own stuff.

Now Johnny is a pretty good dribbler, but very few kids can get through 4 or 5 defenders. Johnny isn’t one of those kids. He, predictably, lost the ball and the other team began their counter-attack.

Johnny’s coaches have failed him because he never learned to dribble with his head up. Nor was he taught to “look off the ball” to see what else is going on. When you are focused on your own stuff so intently, you don’t see what has changed on the field. How have your teammates adjusted? How has the opposing team changed? Where exactly are you on the field? These things are nearly invisible to Johnny and his ilk as they focus on themselves.

Some people never outgrow this tendency.

I have seen company commanders “solve” their problem by pushing it into someone else’s sector. I have seen battalion commanders declare victory in their own area even though their momentary success contributed nothing to the brigade’s mission. I have seen professional, senior leaders focus on the task at their feet and fail to “look off the ball” and see how their actions impact their teammates, their opponents, and the field.

I have learned that teaching soccer players at the earliest opportunity to dribble with their heads up makes a huge difference in the long run. When they see how their actions are affecting the game they can make better, more creative decisions about how to contribute to the team’s success. Teaching Lieutenants and Sergeants to lift their head to see the environment, their teammates and adversaries while accomplishing their tasks pays incalculable dividends later. Teaching junior managers and leaders throughout any organization to see where they fit into the bigger picture, and where their actions support the organization’s overall mission and vision is essential to maximizing each person’s potential. It will help people see where they need to act outside their job description to contribute to your organization’s success.

It’s very difficult to get people to look off the ball and put their individual effort (or their section’s, division’s, etc.) second to the overall mission and vision. It is nearly impossible if they are rewarded their entire careers for being great individual achievers. If team play is secondary to personal accomplishment you will have a difficult time getting teams of teams to operate as a mutually supporting organization focused on an overarching vision.

Teach your people to dribble with their heads up from the start, and you will reap the benefits for a long time to come.

One thought on “Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

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