Last year, I had the privilege of co-coaching my youngest daughter’s soccer team. I joined two young coaches and a team manager; together, we were responsible for coaching about 20 girls aged six to eight. In this post, I will share eight leadership lessons I learned that can be applied to leading both eight year olds and more seasoned “players”.

1. Engage the Stakeholders

When I joined the coaching staff, there was a bit of friction between the coaches and the parents. The other two coaches were 17 and 18 years old and they focused almost solely on coaching the players and not on involving the parents. Shortly after I joined, we held a meeting with the parents, explained our coaching philosophy, our program for the year, and our expectations for players and parents. We invited the parents to engage in dialog with us. Secondly, I made myself available after every practice and often spent a short time talking to parents about whatever was on their mind.

2. You Cannot Not Communicate

Communication is much more than the instructions you give between drills or games. It is also your attitude, how you behave, how you look, your mood etc. When you are a leader, everything you do, and do not do, is a statement to those you expect to follow you. As part of my communication with the players, I always wore soccer boots and training clothes to practice and I was always on time. That sometimes meant coming directly from work and changing in the car; however, it was important to me that the players saw that I came ready for practice.

3. Create a Strong and Healthy Team Culture

Culture is key to success. Often, a team with a strong culture is often able to win against teams with better individual talent. As part of creating a strong and healthy team culture, we established a known rhythm for practices and games. We also tried to bring the players closer together with social events by taking them on a few training camps with overnight stays. As part of our rhythm, the players showered together after games. We started each practice in a circle, greeted new players, and finished with a small retrospective, where we named the best player of our last game and the player most engaged during practice.

4. Give Timely Feedback and Encouragement

Feedback and encouragement are very important elements in learning new skills. If you don´t know what you are doing wrong, or when you are doing something right, you will lack the knowledge, and ultimately the motivation, to improve. The best feedback is given just as the situation unfolds and is still fresh in the memory of the player(s). On the other hand, you don´t want to constantly break for feedback and you want to players to figure out some of the solutions on their own. Finding the right balance is extremely important.

5. Change the Plan when Necessary

We played games where, realistically, we had lost before halftime. In these games, we worked on setting new goals, such as just trying to score a goal, hold the other team to score less in the second half than they had in the first, make three consecutive successful passes, etc. When we succeeded, we celebrated our achievements, not like a real victory, but close.

6. Let the Team Self-organize Within a Framework

When I first started coaching, I over-instructed the players before games. This made us lose games because I had confused the players by overcomplicating things. They were more focused on following my instructions than the flow of the game. When I realized this and started focusing on providing them with a basic framework they felt comfortable to self-organize within, the results quickly improved.

7. Be Careful of Putting People in Boxes

It easy to form an opinion about who is the best striker, defender, goalkeeper etc. and always play them in those positions. However, sometimes you may be surprised at what people can do when you let them play out of position. A great example was a girl on the team who was about to completely lose interest in soccer, before she realized she was one of the best defenders on the team. After boosting her confidence through playing as a defender in a number of games, I started her as a striker in a game and she ended up scoring the winning goal.

8. Have Fun

Playing soccer at age eight should be a lot of fun—so should going to work at age 28, 38, 48 or any age for that matter. Creating an environment with a winning culture, where there is also room for fun, will lead to success both on the pitch and in business. I believe making this a focal point as a leader is a great investment and will ultimately help you and your team achieve bigger things.

Final Thoughts

The Danish Football Association (DBU) has a concept they call show-tell-show. The idea is that you show the players a drill, explain it to them, and then show them again. It requires the coach to be actively involved and to walk-the-talk. Needles to say, I think managers in business should do the same. If you not only know the way, but also show the way, there is a good chance people will follow you.

Eventually my daughter lost interest in soccer and I’m unfortunately no longer involved in coaching the team. Maybe that says something about my coaching skills? Hmm… Anyways, I had a fantastic year as part of the team and I want to thank the players, their parents, my co-coaches, and everyone around the team for making it possible. I wish you all the best, on and off the pitch.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts using the comments below.

Image credit: My daughter Mathilde having fun during soccer practice. 

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