Lessons on Collaboration from The Beautiful Game

In June, people from across the globe will converge on France (or in front of their computers and televisions) to watch the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Teams are busy making last minute adjustments to field their best players and tighten up their tactics. But come June 8, all of their preparation will be put to the test as the whistle blows and competition kicks into full gear.

As an avid soccer fan, I love what it can teach us about teamwork and collaboration. I coach a local high school team and use the lessons learned from the season as a metaphor into the deeper ways the players can prepare for other teams in which they will participate in the future.

Those lessons might also be something we would be wise not to shrug off when building our “teams” around the collective social impact work in our community.

So, what can we learn from the beautiful game?

Establishing a Solid Game Plan

Preparing for the world stage of soccer takes planning and intentional detail. There is a lot that goes into organizing a team to prepare for the most watched soccer tournament in the world - building the team roster, establishing potential game-day formations, scheduling friendlies (practice games versus other nations), studying the format of the tournament, and so much more. But, one of the biggest aspects of establishing a solid game plan is keeping the eye on the prize - advancing through the group stages, knockout stages, and eventually making it to the final in order to win the cup.

The importance of creating a solid game plan is just like having a map to use to fall back on as you make your way through your plans to impact the community through a specific project or service. Keeping that game plan in the forefront at team meetings and during evaluation periods is essential to staying on track. As you build your project/service plan, be sure that everyone has a copy, understands the plan, and can speak into its creation and evaluation.

Recruiting the Right Players

Soccer teams consist of players who generally have expertise in playing in certain positions, typically which fall into categories. There are goalkeepers, defensive backs, midfielders (both centers and wings), and strikers. The game plan, in part, helps to identify who is needed the most on the team to accomplish the goal. Coaching and recruiting staff spend so much time analyzing their specific needs, evaluating the assets and strengths of potential players, and building the best collective team to carry out their plans.

As we put together our community impact teams, it is equally important that we evaluate our biggest needs, taking into consideration all the various expertise needed to accomplish our goals. Perhaps we need experts in community organizing and engagement, project management, technical/operations support, communications, group facilitation, creative thinking/design, or evaluation. We also may need partners who are experts in their given field, come from varying demographics, or have experience that could lend support to the team. It is vital to plan out the needs of the team, and then carefully bring the right partners on board to make it happen.

Technical Skills

Leonel Messi of Barecelona FC is considered one of the greatest soccer players to ever play the game.

Leonel Messi of Barecelona FC is considered one of the greatest soccer players to ever play the game.

Leonel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. David Beckham. Pele.

Even if you are not soccer fans, most of you probably recognize the names of these famous soccer players. They are known for their expert ball handling skills. The debate is always being made for who is the G.O.A.T. of the soccer pitch. The best soccer teams consist of players who excel in their given positions. A player who can control the ball through traffic, take incredible corners and free kicks, and strike the ball on net with either foot can make the fans ooh and aah at their skills and put another goal on the scoreboard for their team. It is important to have amazing players on the team, and building a complete team of skilled players will put that team in a better position to be successful.

Same goes for our teams. But there is also one major caveat to keep in mind regarding champion partners with great skills.

Tactical Skills

As important it is to have skilled players, season after season, I also see teams that put all of their eggs in one basket by focusing all of their attention on the skills of one or two individual players, only to experience struggles and even loss. The soccer field is a big space. One or two incredible players cannot do it alone. Therefore, coaches scan their teams, evaluate their team weaknesses and strengths, get out the whiteboards, and develop varying tactical approaches (formations, set plays, strategic ways they move the ball around the field) in order to utilize their collective impact.

Leicester City’s 2016 Cinderella run in the Premier League shocked the soccer world.

Leicester City’s 2016 Cinderella run in the Premier League shocked the soccer world.

People enjoy underdog stories. In 2016, the world was thrilled to see a mostly unknown Leicester City team run through the Premier League table (one of the most challenging professional soccer leagues in the world) to win the league championship. While they had plenty of talent on their team, there wasn’t one single player that was known across the world. It was their collective approach and the tactics they adjusted for each opponent that led to their successful run.

Individual skills and collective group efforts are both essential ingredients to successful teams. As we manage our collaborative efforts, there is a balance that we must consider in the technical requirements of our partners and the tactical teamwork (how the parts interact with one another) needed.

Coaches & Leadership

There is a lot that can be said about great soccer coaches. As an Arsenal F.C. fan, I of course love the long-term management of Arsene Wenger, who led the club from 1996-2018. His work to set up a strict regiment of player diet, recruitment strategies, and well thought-out player trainings transformed the sport in England. This paid off in 2004 when he guided the Gunners to an undefeated season (something that hadn’t happened in over 115 years). Coaches are instrumental in setting up the game plan (see above) and in guiding the efforts in following or making adjustments to the plan to reach success. There is also a very important balance of skills needed to both encourage the team and to hold their feet to the fire when the players get a little off track. But, ultimately a team’s coach only sets the tone and vision. It’s up to the players to carry it out on the field.

Our organizational and project leadership also requires a deep commitment to developing a solid plan, meticulous attention to putting together the right team, and the know-how of when to cheer on the team, and when to make cuts, replace partners, and pivot.

Effective Communication & Trust

How the communication of female high school soccer teams leads to greater collaboration.

How the communication of female high school soccer teams leads to greater collaboration.

As a high school coach, it is truly fascinating to watch how female and male teams play in different ways. Year after year, I find the female teams to perform in a much more collaborative fashion, and I believe it all comes down to communication and trust. Sitting on the sideline of a women’s high school game, you will barely have a quiet moment. The players are constantly talking to each other. But they are also responding. For high school boys, they focus a lot of attention on individual skills and use body language more than their voices. Some of this is because they boys simply do not trust each other. Some of it is also age and development. Yet, there is something beautiful about seeing a female team communicating so well throughout a game. I wish I could bottle it up for my boys to drink in to produce the same effect.

Trust and communication go hand in hand on the pitch and in our meeting rooms as well. Developing an effective communication stream is so vital in our collective work. This is especially important in collaborations when multiple agencies and stakeholder groups are working together. In their own context, they probably have a communications system and approach that is just inherited. But in a collaborative environment, a communication approach has to be intentionally worked on and established.

Game Plan Changes and Adaptations

During a season sometimes coaches have to change their tactics in order to accomplish their goal. Soccer teams have very different tactics for different teams they play (including their player formations and whether they’ll attack or play more defensively) and for other factors that play into a successful game (field conditions, whether they’re playing at home or away, how many practices to set up between games, paying attention to the injury reports of the opponents, etc.). But, it’s when coaches make needed adjustments in the middle of the game that championships are often won.

Sometimes, in the middle of a game as a coach, I would take a player who spent most of the season playing defense and position him in a striker or attacking position because I saw a weak spot in the opponent’s defense that we could exploit or test. If it didn’t work, I’d make adjustments as I go along.

In the same way, our game plans for our community impact work often need to have room for “mid game” evaluation and adjustments. This opportunity must be communicated from the start to the whole team, so that they know that the team will be flexible in the approach, so that new learnings or early discoveries (from testing our tactics) can produce more successes. But it also takes the team’s willingness to self reflect and be honest about the areas of weakness that need to be adjusted.

The Influence from the Fans

The influence from the supporter section.

The influence from the supporter section.

It is proven that soccer teams do better when they play at home. They win more games. Even with the same rosters, same skill set, and same game plan, they just do better at home. Why? Because the 12th man (the fans in the stands) have major influence on the team’s performance. Fans can rally the team to push harder and play with more intensity at home because they want to make their home supporters proud.

Our community impact work has sideline fans as well. It could be the neighborhood leaders, corporate partners, and even the funders who want us to be successful. Their feedback is vital and their encouragement (or lack of) can greatly influence the progress and success of our collective work as well.

Celebrating Success (& Learning from Failures)

At the end of each season, my team has an end-of-year picnic where we look back on our time together. We use this time to recap some of the major highlights and moments of the season, and also when we recognize and say thanks to the graduating seniors.

It’s also a great opportunity that I use to talk about key learnings from our season. This past year, with a very young team (only four of our 20-player roster were juniors and seniors combined), we ended up with an under .500 win-loss record. IN other words, we lost the majority of our games. It was a tough season to say the least. But, failure brings many great lessons. And not all was bad. We had some great wins and some hard fought draws. For me, I like to use the reflection on those games to talk about life’s lessons and how our team responded in light of the record.

In the same way, it is vital that we take the time to review our projects, and as a team celebrate the achievements and accomplishments. Knowing that not everything will most likely go as planned and that not all of the partners will become best friends, we can still look back and learn from everything that was done together. But we also need to pay attention to the stumbling blocks and “failures” even mid-way through the project so that we can learn from them and make adjustments.

Perhaps, after careful evaluation, we need to make some major changes to the game plan, or maybe even scrap it all together and start from scratch. But “win or lose,” the importance of regrouping and reflecting cannot be overlooked.

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Patrick Miles

As the Director of the United Way Hub for Social Innovation, Patrick helps collaborative teams develop creative strategies to tackle some of our community’s toughest issues.

Patrick has over 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector with direct involvement in development, strategic planning, cross-cultural impact, communications, marketing, special event planning, and community engagement.

He is an alumnus of Indiana University and an avid Gooner (Arsenal Football Club supporter).

Summary

I love what sports can teach us. That’s one of the reasons why I love watching an entire soccer season from start to finish. I love trying to see how a coach builds his/her game plan, recruits the players, develops tactics, sets the right tone, makes adjustments, and encourages his/her team along the way. I always learn something that I try to use when I’m coaching, guiding my kids at home, or even in my work.

Collaboration is like a team sport. There are so many moving parts and elements that can truly make it successful. This summer, I encourage you to turn on your televisions to catch some of the Women’s World Cup games, and consider what you can learn from watching the teams compete, so that you can take those lessons and apply them in your context.

Now, let’s go U.S.A.!

Notes

Match schedule of the upcoming 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The majority of photos for this post were provided by Jeffrey F Lin through Unsplash