What Pee Wee Soccer Taught Me about Leadership

Coaching Pee Wee Soccer and Little League Baseball definitely isn’t for everyone. Trying to corral a group of kindergartners after spending the day within a disciplined class environment, coordinating group bathroom breaks, and getting kids to pay attention to the game and ignore the iPad app their little brother is playing is not for the faint of heart. I didn’t think it was a big deal until the principal of my boys’ school, whose son was on our team this past Fall, said to me, “I don't know how you do it.” To me it’s a privilege to be out there and I responded to her, “I don’t you know how YOU do it” given the number of phone calls and complaints she must get from overzealous parents.

Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of coaching my sons’ youth sports teams. Running around on the soccer and baseball fields coaching my sons is a thrill and allows me to spend precious time with them as they grow up at a seemingly rapid pace.

My first foray into coaching youth sports was in 2013 as the coach of my oldest son’s Pee Wee soccer team. While that first year was more about guiding the cluster of kids in the right direction and encouraging the “Daisy pickers” to engage in the game, the last year or so has allowed me to actually impress a few lessons upon the kids.

At practice for the Blue Ninjas (team ideas provided by the kids tend to revolve around ninjas and sea mammals, at least in San Diego) in the Fall of 2016, I laid out 4 values that we would adhere to over the course of the year; have fun, work hard, be a good teammate, and learn something. “If we follow those 4 rules,” I told the team, “we will have a great season.” Much to my surprise given the attention span of little kids, the values landed well and I have continued to use them in subsequent seasons with the various soccer and baseball teams that I have coached.

As an executive coach focused on developing leaders, I have observed a number of parallels between my professional work and coaching kids on the sports field. In particular, the values I introduce to our rec sports teams overlap with those adopted by some of the most successful leaders. While they look a bit different on a wide-eyed 6 year old versus a seasoned and sometimes cynical executive, they do hold up quite well.  

Below I have depicted how the values come to life within our youth sports teams as well as how I apply them in developing leaders.

Value 1: Have Fun

Youth sports are first and foremost about having fun (though you wouldn’t know it given some of the coaches’ antics at games). Sports provide tremendous opportunities to develop confidence, build friendships, and in some cases provide the foundation to play professionally, but the primary focus is (or should be) on having fun.

For example, while soccer practices dedicate the lion’s share of time teaching the fundamentals of dribbling, passing, and shooting, games like “Red Light, Green Light”, “Steal the Bacon”, and “Knock Out” ensure the kids have fun in the process while also introducing light competition.

In coaching executives, “having fun” in a business context starts by creating alignment between an individual’s values and strengths and the objectives of their role. Building that bridge leads to greater joy in work and also a feeling of effortlessness in knocking out what can be mundane day-to-day tasks.

I recently worked with a sales leader, who fiercely values work/life balance and has Competition as one of his top 5 Gallup strengths. By implementing a virtual “scoreboard”, which tracked his key sales metrics as well as goals around fitness, social activities, lifelong learning, and personal development, it provided greater focus to his days and weeks. In addition, gamifying many aspects of his life made things a bit lighter and fun while gaining satisfaction from achieving personal bests in several areas.

Value 2: Work Hard

Youth sports also teaches kids the importance of putting in consistent effort over time to achieve a collective outcome. Learning the value of hard work at an early age is critical and supports our ongoing growth and development as adults. In baseball, which tends to be slow and can lead to lethargy among the kids (especially the outfielders who have been known to sit down mid inning), I attempt to jump start the energy by telling the kids, “We have one speed on this team…. HUSTLE speed!”

Successful leaders on the other hand, rarely suffer from a lack of effort, and our focus is therefore on helping leaders not just work hard on completing specific tasks and achieving business outcomes, but on aiming that effort introspectively in an attempt to become a more impactful and effective leader. In my forthcoming book, The Savage Leader, I talk about two requisite traits to becoming a Savage Leader; a burning desire to be great and a willingness to look inside yourself for areas that need to shift (e.g. Aligning values and strengths with objectives, handling fear, overcoming doubt, dealing with failure). Applying that work ethic internally is one of the keys to unlocking the potential that exists within each of us.

Value 3: Be a Good Teammate

In youth sports, learning to be a supportive teammate is arguably the most important lesson imparted on kids and helps them as they go through adolescence and become adults. Throughout the season, we spend a great deal of time talking about the importance of rooting on your teammates, not dwelling on individual mistakes, and on achieving collective goals as a team (“There is no ‘I’ in “Team” never fails).

Over the years, I have found that some of the best teammates in a work context have tended to have played team sports or at least some other group activity such as theater or debate that required a reliance on one another to succeed. In helping leaders become more effective and collaborative teammates (for peer-to-peer as well as boss-direct report relationships), our coaching conversations focus on topics such as building empathy (e.g. learning to walk a mile in others’ shoes), active listening, and tailoring one’s style based on a fellow team member’s strengths (e.g. analytical, reserved, ambitious) and motives (e.g. people, process, performance).

 Value 4: Learn Something

At the end of each soccer and baseball game, I ask the kids, “What one thing did you learn today?” Specifically, I prompt them for a new skill or technique they learned, an observation about themselves, or something that the other team did particularly well. As a corollary to famed Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s mantra, I believe that “every day there is an opportunity to grow and develop in every way.” While the “every way” might be a bit aspirational, there is both an opportunity and impetus to daily improvement.

In coaching individual leaders as well as consulting for high-growth clients, one big focus area is to instill a sense of “lifelong learning” within individuals and teams. Given the pace of disruption and extinction of tasks and roles, it’s critical that we both create a learning plan AND ensure it aligns with our strengths as well as the direction of our companies and industries. For example, learning plans can include specifics such as “Become more persuasive in team meetings”, “Learn and apply the lean start-up methodology to a pilot project”, or “take an online course on machine learning.”

Coaching my boys has truly been one of the joys of my life; both to spend time with my wonderful sons and to have the opportunity to make an impact on the lives of the other kids on the team. A secondary and unintended benefit has been a deeper understanding about what drives people that has been impactful in my role as a consultant and executive coach. So thank you boys for not only making me smile and bringing me joy but for teaching me a few lessons about life.