“Get back, get back, defend the throw!!!”
I was shouting much louder than I normally allow myself as a youth soccer coach. I may actually have sounded like a “win or go home” type of coach in my urgent tone. The type of coach I strive to avoid emulating.
My sweaty group of 7 & 8 year olds were looking back at me with a perplexed, puppy dog head tilt. They had been frozen in their tracks by a trifecta of mixed signals.
First, a late whistle from the referee stopped their play.
Then, the incorrect, thunderous shout of halftime from the opposing coach made them start to leave the field.
Third, their own coach, who rarely gets animated, was on the sidelines shouting: get back, get back and practically dancing with the stars to get their attention.
By the time my young team realized what I was saying, the opposing team had inbounded the ball and blazed past my players, who seemed to be nailed in place by confusion. In the blink of an eye, the opposing team crossed mid field and was running towards our defense and our goal. As I turned to coach the defense, my chin hit the grass in surprise. All of our defenders and goalie were already chewing on their orange slices and jugging down water, they thought it was halftime.
The opposing team stormed past the picnic of players, the parents, the scored an easy goal in an empty net.
I can’t recall what I said in this very blurry moment, but I must have looked like Darth Vader with lightsaber ah-blazing, as I stormed towards the group of players and parents who looked at me with shock and awe.
The remaining players that I had managed to keep in the game, ran to the premature halftime festivities and began to go through the usual range of emotions that happens when things go wrong.
First, you get angry—where are the defenders!
Then, you blame—what the heck are you guys doing!
In the distance, behind the growing volume of kids singing songs of why weren’t you guys there, we’re gonna lose and it’s not fair—the real halftime whistle sounded.
The team was devastated. They had worked so hard and had been the better team for much of the first half and now were down 1 to nothing.
Knowing I had my coaching work cut out for me, I gathered myself, my thoughts and then the team and parents for a halftime chat to try and regain our composure.
First, I assured our team mom and parents that it was not their fault and explained the sequence of mixed signals on the other end of the field, but the team was not having much of it. I knew they needed to hear more from their coach.
Next, I recalled our pregame mantras:
A. Have fun
B. Try our best.
I assured them that they were indeed playing their best despite the mistake.
Then, we reviewed the key points we try to have before each game.
We are not striving for perfection, we are striving for our best. As long as we do that, we have succeeded, win or lose.
Every game is unique and will present a new challenge. Be prepared to embrace that challenge.
Things may not go as planned, that is the others teams job, when things go wrong or we make a mistake, we adapt and move forward. We never blame or point fingers.
Slowly, I could see the lemon-soured faces of the team began to soften and sweeten back up. I felt like my message was getting through. When the second half begun, the team took the field with new energy and a better sense of purpose.
Looking back, I think designers, start ups, non profits, entrepreneurs and creative team leaders all could take away quite a bit from the lessons of my youth soccer team. There are many times that I see products launch, customers balk or things deviate from the original plan and set off a ball of confusion, finger pointing and destructive hi-jinx.
However, if we take a moment to pause and reflect upon some of the teams mantras and key points, we could possibly turn setbacks into opportunities to raise our game, remember our purpose and actually enjoy the challenges our work presents us.
Here are three key points to take from the youth soccer field to the big kid work place.
Anticipate and Embrace Imperfection.
Just like my soccer team has never played a perfect game, rarely—if ever, do projects go with out a hick up. Bugs arise, platforms upgrade and technology is always evolving. It’s for this reason that creative teams and start ups must embrace and actually anticipate imperfection. It is going to happen. As long as we live in a human world with human created technology, we will have some rough edges in everything. This isn’t to encourage being a Debbie downer or naysayer but rather have a mind set that we are going to hit turbulence along the way.
The professional understands this, adapts and continues to move forward. The amateur, like my young team, struggles with it, looks for scapegoats and stops in their tracks. The latter can be expensive, damaging to the team and is a recipe for a lose.
This is especially challenging for creative and design teams. Design, like art, is subjective and rarely has a definite ending. The work is never done. There are just very good stopping points. The professional realizes this and does their absolute best within the time and resources available. The amateur tries to achieve perfection.
Striving for your best, is the perfect solution in the imperfect game.
Return to the Original Game Plan (Vision).
Knowing things are gonna get messy is part of the solution, yet sometimes it can be difficult to get back on track once things go haywire. Some rough edges must absolutely get smoothed out while others can be ignored. In the face of disaster, my soccer team wanted to get down to who’s to blame: the players (try again), team mom (no), the coach (hell no) or the referees (bingo).
However, to spend any precise moment of our halftime dwelling over the series of events that led to the goal would certainly set us further behind and have us enter the second half in a frazzled, defeated state. We needed to get refocused on our original vision for the the game: have fun and play our best. While this may sound too simplistic, the process we should use to get back on track and decide which fires to put out and which to let burn, can be the same.
Return to your original vision for starting the project. Did you want to change the world, solve a problem close to your heart or just make cool shirts for music lovers? By returning to the why, how and who you are doing the project for, you will regain clarity, help weed out many last minute requests and reduce the urgency to make changes or need to place blame.
Many of what seems important falls away in the face of the original game plan or project vision. So the next time a project runs into trouble, ask yourself: does attending to this problem help us better achieve our original goal or are we people pleasing, following trends, procrastinating…you get my drift.
So, say we revisit the game plan and still find we have an obstacle or deficit to overcome, rather than look at it as a drag or a losing game we should change our outlook to…
Challenges are Opportunities.
Challenges are opportunities to do our best work, raise our game and look heroic. They make us grow in ways that we could not in their absence. In fact, challenges are exactly what we need and desire.
When any of the unlimited setbacks or obstacles arise, I have witnessed too much energy wasted and time lost struggling against them. Instead of throwing our hands up when the referee blows his whistle late, we need to change our mindset from that of game over to the real game has just begun. This change of state is one that enables us to side step an energy sapping, defeatist state and move toward one that raises our game, increases our energy and allows us to learn from the problem at hand.
Just like the soccer team, we need to remember it’s the job of the opposing team, target user or marketplace to challenge us. We need to view these as opportunities to become better. The field may get muddy and the ball will stick. That just means we’ll need to kick through the mud with more passion.
So what happened to the soccer team after halftime you wonder, they took the field with a renewed focus and played with more enthusiasm and determination than they had in the previous half. They dominated the ball, worked together and absolutely played their very best. The ball just could not seem to find its way into the goal as some shots were saved, hit the post or were slightly wide. The unfortunate goal in the first half seemed to be the game winner.
However, the team seemed to leave the field with a sense of pride despite the outcome. Instead of bickering or sulking when the referee blew his whistle to call a penalty, they embraced their imperfect play and resisted the urge to finger point, they simply moved on to the next play. By connecting to their original vision, they remembered why they were playing in the first place and begun to laugh and cheer each other on. The game had become fun again despite being a goal down. Lastly, the challenge of being down one goal made them raise their level of play as they put together their most inspired half of soccer.
Not only did these lessons help the team find their path in that game, the teams energy and better lever of play seemed to carry over to their next game a week later as well. Indeed, the challenge had made them raise their game.
By anticipating imperfection, coming back to the original vision and looking at setbacks as opportunities, we can apply the soccer teams recipe for moving onward to our own work. So the next time a deadline gets moved up, the server crashes or the revisions start to pile mile high, remember that there is a group of 7 & 8 year olds that can relate to, or maybe even remedy your pain.