15 Career Lessons from a Soccer Dad

December 17, 2014

Career Lessons from a Soccer DadCareer tips are easy to come by but not always easy to follow. Here are some I’ve learned over the last several months from a motley crew of 8 year old boys – if they can do it, so can you!

It all began last summer when I ran the tryouts for my son’s youth soccer team. As part of my mission to live with no regrets I had agreed to be an assistant coach for his team in the upcoming Fall season. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

As I threw myself into this new role it ended up turning into a side job (unpaid of course). I don’t know how many hours a week I spent on it but my wife was glad when the season finally ended : )

I had a lot of fun but it was definitely a learning experience. I’ve been a leader on a team of adults before but I’ve never been responsible for the development and success of a team of kids. While reflecting on what the boys learned last season I realized there are many lessons I observed/learned in coaching kids that can also be applied to your career.

Here they are, please feel free to add your own comments at the end:

1) Move Without the Ball

High level professional soccer players may only have the ball at their feet for a total of 1 or 2 minutes during an entire game. The rest of the time they spend anticipating the play, running to get open, or getting back on defense. This can be exhausting but making the right run can put you on the end of a great pass and could end up saving or scoring a goal.

Just like the hard work of making a run and getting open can make a goal look easy, doing the prep work in your job can make you look like a star. Anticipating potential problems, researching solutions, and proposing alternatives are all things you can do to help make your project a success.

Kids don’t like to make those runs because they don’t always get the ball. They may sprint down the sideline only to have their teammate pass to a different part of the field. It takes a while to learn that doing that “unrewarded” work is just part of the game.

If you watch a professional soccer game you’ll see many instances of players making runs to get open and have it lead to nothing. Yet they keep making those runs and eventually they’re in the right place at the right time and help the team with a goal or an assist.

Sometimes in your job you may do work that seems to go unnoticed. You may be tempted to only do your “assigned work”. This is fine if you’re not looking to advance but if you’d like to get ahead in your career then be sure to “move without the ball” at work.

Just like coaches notice players who are working to get open and make plays – your boss and co-workers will notice when you’re working hard to put out fires, squash bugs, prevent errors, please customers, add features, trump competitors, make more sales, or anything else that goes into making your team a success.

2) Find a Coach

Find a Coach

Jose Mourinho

When we’re kids it seems like we have a coach for everything – our teachers in school, coaches on the field, instructors in the arts, etc. We’re soaking it all in and learn a lot from various coaches – we look up to them and often look forward to our time spent learning from coaches.

Then we grow up and find ourselves thinking we’re too mature and experienced and worldly to need a coach. Since we’re adults we think we should be able to figure things out on our own. However, trying to go it alone can be counter-productive. Often a coach can often point out a few areas you can improve in, or even just best practices to use, that can result in big performance gains.

Your coach doesn’t have to be the world’s leading expert on your industry or career. As long as they’re knowledgeable about your topic then you stand to gain a great deal from tapping into their expertise. You don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for coaching. Technology has made it much easier and cheaper for experts to deliver coaching, checkout Google Helpouts as an example.

3) Be Self-Motivated

The kids who improve the most in youth sports are the ones who want to get better. Kids that are self-motivated to improve are the ones who listen (most of the time) and make the effort to do things the “right” way. They focus rather than complain. They’re open to hearing and trying out feedback.

They put in the extra effort to do drills outside of practice. They try to learn the bigger picture and how smaller skills and details work in tandem towards achieving a better result. It’s obvious to the coaches who these kids are. It’s likely just as it’s obvious to your boss who the achievers are in your group.

You have to be self-motivated to excel at work and in your career. If you don’t want to improve and don’t feel the need to get better then maybe it’s time to think about adjusting your job or career in a direction where you would feel more motivated.

4) Understand How to be Part of a Team

Part of a Team

Coaches value kids who are mature enough to understand that sometimes the team comes before the player. Kids who fill the role where they’re needed even if they don’t particularly want to be in that role.

Coaches aren’t fans of players who throw a fit when things don’t go their way.

A coach will always cheer for a player who steps in to cover when a teammate makes a mistake. Coaches notice when players are kind and supportive to their teammates and when kids are positive and have good sportsmanship.

Many of these things can be said for your team at work and your boss. These are the types of things that aren’t going to directly earn you a bonus or a promotion but they’re noticed by your peers and superiors. This type of behavior adds up over time, negative or positive, and will have an impact on your career over the long term.

5) Communicate Effectively

CommunicatePlayers who are good communicators make the team better.

For example, kids who speak up to say they don’t understand a drill or a new skill or tactic we’re learning.

They give the coach a chance to address the ambiguity or confusion in advance rather than during a game situation.

Kids who tell you where they want to play can be a little annoying when they ask over and over if they can play striker. However, if that’s where they excel and are most motivated to play hard, it’s good that they let the coach know where they think they can contribute best and are volunteering themselves for that job.

Players who communicate with their teammates in the heat of the action can help the team find the open player, get the extra pass made, get back on defense.

You can apply many of these things directly to your job. Let people know when things are unclear and need more detail or direction. Double check with people on your team to make sure they understand both expectations and the plan for meeting them. Let people know the areas you’re strong in so they can reach out to you when they need help. Keep your boss and team apprised of delays, roadblocks, and schedule changes.

6) Accept & Learn from Criticism

Accept Criticism

As part of any team you’ll eventually run into a situation where you make a mistake and it costs the team. In sports it might lose you the game, at work it might cause you to miss a deadline or even lose a client.

When a kid makes a mistake that results in a goal, we let him know right away what he did wrong. I’m sure it probably hurts his pride being called out in front of his team but we do it in the moment so they can learn from their mistake.

Whether in an email or a team meeting it sucks having your mistakes being pointed out in front of your co-workers and boss. Often our immediate reaction is to defend our actions and maybe even get dragged into an argument

The best way to shake off a mistake is to own it. Acknowledge your mistake, don’t make excuses or blame others. You may be tempted in the heat of the moment but it usually works out better if you just apologize for any mistakes and pay attention to the feedback on how to avoid it in the future.

7) Be Consistent

Being consistent is very important when you are part of a team if you hope to be a part of that team’s success.

We had kids who would play amazing one game then disappear for the next 1-2 games. Our players are only eight so we know that we can’t expect them all to be super consistent – however the ones that always show up ready to play definitely stand out.

It’s frustrating to your boss and your team members if they don’t know if they can count on you. I’d bet that many a boss/coworker would prefer to work with a consistently good performer over a superstar who only shows up 60% of the time.

Consistent results will be noticed by your team and your superiors. One of the main hurdles to achieving consistency is that it takes commitment and discipline. Whether in sports or in your career you have to make the decision to put in the work, even when you’re having a lousy day, week, or month.

Remember this, if your boss knows they can count on you they will likely give you the support and training you need to do your job even better. Just make sure that they don’t take advantage of your consistent performance and willingness to do the work.

8) Know Your Strengths/Weaknesses

I learned this season that I’m a much better assistant coach than head coach. I’m good at working one on one with players and coming up with ways to motivate them to improve and to build their confidence. I’m good at preparing them to play but I discovered that my weakness is running a game.

The first weekend the head coach was out of town I really struggled with game management. I was so caught up in coaching the game I lost track of the subs and who had played and who needed a sub.

You probably won’t be good at every part of your job so dealing with your weaknesses is an important part of your career. There are really two parts to it:

  1. recognizing those areas you need help
  2. adjusting your actions to account for your weaknesses.

In my situation I asked another parent to help manage the substituting so I could focus on coaching the players on the field. At work you can reach out to your boss or co-workers to ask for help in areas where you’re struggling. This isn’t always easy to do – it can be hard to admit that your skill or experience level isn’t where it needs to be for a task or project.

Most reasonable managers would rather have you acknowledge you need help so that the project can turn out a success, rather than you struggling in silence and having the project delivered with sub-standard quality or fail altogether.

Obviously, having others do part of your job for you isn’t really a long term solution. So once you recognize areas you need to work on you have some decisions to make. If those skills play a big role in your job and you don’t really want to do those things then maybe you need to look for a different job that requires many of the same skills you have but avoids the areas where you are lacking.

Alternatively you could get training to improve your skills in those areas. Some companies have documentation or a knowledge base on industry or company specific challenges that you can turn to for guidance. Keep in mind there are some things that you get better at mostly through experience. In those cases it helps to find a more senior professional to mentor you through those growing pains.

Remember that everyone always has more to learn. So be prepared to recognize and handle weaknesses as you come across them in your career.

9) Don’t be a Waste of Talent

LazySoccerPlayerThis is kind of a cliché but you’ve probably known someone who was really talented but also kind of lazy. Their craft came to them easily so they could be lazy and still be good.

Some kids on our team are naturally skilled at soccer and others have to work a lot harder at it.

When you see a kid who’s good but always goofing off it makes you wonder how much better they could be if they took it seriously and worked hard.

If you’re good at something in your career strive to be better at it, to be the best. Carve out a niche in that area and use your skills to your advantage.

10) Challenge Yourself

Challenge YourselfMy son’s team sometimes chooses to “play up” against older kids who are bigger, stronger, and faster in order to challenge the boys. The challenge makes the kids work harder but it helps them get better.

They’re more likely to lose to an older team than if they played kids their own age but those tough games help make them better players.

The same is true in your career. Taking risks and challenging yourself is more likely to result in harder work and potentially more failures but you’ll be learning (and hopefully improving) along the way.

In many companies if you want a promotion you have to prove that you’re capable of handling that next level of responsibility. Often this is by doing the work of the job you want, not the one you have. You may be taking on work that feels out of your league but if you don’t challenge yourself you (and your boss) will never know what you’re capable of.

11) Set Yourself Up for Success

This point may seem to contradict the previous one so let me explain with another soccer example. Our soccer team challenges itself by “playing up” during season games and maybe finishing with a .500 record, or worse, for the season.

While it’s good to challenge yourself, it can be a confidence killer when you feel like you’re working hard but never coming out on top. So while we play up in league play, we enter all tournaments in our proper age group and are usually very competitive – often coming away with a confidence building 1st or 2nd place finish.

So while you want to challenge yourself in your career you also have to be realistic about your abilities and what tasks you can take on. One way to do this at work is to volunteer for tough tasks but to build in time for learning when you put together a schedule and offer estimates and commitments to your team and your superiors.

Another way to increase your chances of success is to negotiate the scope of the work on your project. If you’re tackling a tough problem try to break it down into smaller deliverables, focus on the first few, and see if you can push the other less critical aspects back a little.

12) Look for Teachable Moments

Teachable moments

Mistakes are a perfect chance to teach, whether you’re working with 8 year old kids or middle aged cube workers. Often whether the offending party learns anything has to do with how you approach your critique.

If you make them feel foolish and put them on the defensive they’ll be more focused on denying/defending themselves than learning from what they did wrong. If someone on your team is making bad decisions or doing things the wrong way it’s often best to communicate with just that one person so it doesn’t look like you’re calling them out. For example, email just them rather than copying everyone on the team.

One strategy is to offer a suggestion on a better way to do it but make it seem like their idea.

You don’t even have to always point out their mistake. For example, with our boys we watch recordings of professional games and point out examples of mistakes the pros are making that are kids are making as well. We pause/rewind and talk about what went wrong and what they could have done differently. For many work problems you can find articles online about similar issues and use those as talking points.

Occasionally we’ll tape our game and review the recording for improvement. At work you can do something like that with post-project reviews or even smaller scale post-mortem on individual issues. Check out the 5 Why method.

13) Learn How to Motivate Others

Motivate OthersI talked in an earlier point about being self-motivated. To do this you have to figure out what motivates you and what it takes to push those buttons. However, when you’re part of a team it also helps to know how to motivate the people you’re working with.

A former soccer teammate of mine (who now has some grey in his beard), went on to become a successful college soccer coach. Years back I asked him about how he transitioned from a player into such a good coach and he shared that it was because he figured out how to motivate each player to do their best. At first he wasn’t great at all the technical aspects of coaching but he was really good at getting each player to perform at or above their peak level.

You can use the same approach in projects you encounter in your career. The secret to learning how to motivate others is to listen to what your team members talk about in team and project meetings. What do they feel strongly about? What gets them fired up or what’s something they can talk about for hours? What do they take pride in?

Inevitably you’ll be faced with a tight deadline and you’ll be asked to do more than you can with less than you need. Times like those are when it really pays to know how to motivate others on your team.

These last two lessons are the most useful to people in a new job or career. As I watched young kids learn the technical aspects of soccer I saw that focusing on the fundamentals made them more comfortable on the field and gave them more confidence. Something similar can be said for a new job or skill. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Focus first on getting the basics figured out.

14) Building Confidence is Key

Build confidence

The young players who build confidence to call for the ball, attack the defense, and to make the runs up the field are the ones who will score the most goals.

The ones who are somewhat intimated and sit back and watch won’t see as much action.

In your career, having the confidence to tackle new assignments and to voice your ideas to your boss and team can help you build experience – and ultimately to advance.

What I learned from the scampering soccer youths is that using the right techniques to learn the fundamentals helps you pick them up more quickly and remember them more easily.

Rather than expecting yourself to figure everything out on your own when you start a new job – seek out training and mentorship. There are many online platforms that not only teach you the subject matter but also help keep track of your progress. As your skills improve so will your confidence in your ability to use them.

Part of this goes back to finding a mentor or “coach” as I mentioned earlier. There may be concepts or techniques that are difficult to conquer all at once in your job. More experienced experts in your company can help you break the problem down into smaller more manageable pieces and help you build confidence as you see small successes. This leads us to the final lesson.

15) Patience Young Grasshopper

Just as it’s hard to explain to 8 year olds why moving without the ball on the soccer field is important, it can also be tough to explain to a rookie programmer the importance of code that’s loosely coupled and has high cohesion. Pick your industry, there are always concepts that are difficult to fully grasp when you’re getting started. It takes time to understand the value of these concepts and incorporate them into your craft.

The trouble is some of these practices may seem inconvenient or a waste of time when you’re first starting out. If you find yourself questioning the value in the seemingly extra work just think about Mr. Miyagi and how he taught the Karate Kid to “wax on, wax off”. If you haven’t seen the movie, the idea is to train yourself by repeatedly using basic skills until they become second nature.

In sports it’s often referred to as building muscle memory. Experienced players who have practiced and used the fundamentals many times are able to subconsciously control the mechanics of their body movements and instead focus their brain on higher level tactical and strategic tasks.

So in the beginning of learning a new skill or career it really pays to focus on the fundamentals. Even if it feels like progress is slow, have patience while you build those skills. Eventually it will click.

Life After Your Job


I took my son to the NCAA DIII Championship games last weekend and as the final match came to a close I thought about the seniors on the losing team whose soccer careers effectively ended with the final whistle.

Although their 15 years of intense work and effort ended just short of winning the championship they came away with a lot more than a second place trophy. They take the lessons they learned about team work, perseverance, mental toughness, etc. into the next stage of their life.

Just the same, you can use the skills you pick up at work in your next job. I don’t know the exact statistics about how few youth athletes go on to get college scholarships and how even fewer become professional sports players. I do know that proportionately few workers will become CEO or a senior executive at their company. Chances are higher that you’ll be transferred, laid off, or maybe just change jobs.


Alexi Lalas transferred his soccer skills from the field to ESPN analyst

So work hard but be purposeful about the skills you’re learning, relationships you’re building, and industries you’re entering. Remember it’s not all about the trophy (promotion, awards, pay raise). Chances are your current job isn’t forever so those things are temporary.

Don’t feel like you have to put it all on the line for the promotion. Be wary of working your fingers to the bone just for the promise of a pay raise. If you’re an at-will employee then job title and salary are temporary.

However, the skills you learn and the relationships you form can carry with you into your next job. Focus on building some of the career fundamentals we’ve talked about – being consistent, a team player, adaptable, driven, patient, a communicator, motivational and you’ll be in good shape when it comes time to move onto your next job.

Any more career tips you’ve learned through sports? Please feel free to share them below.


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Ben Edwards, the founder of Money Smart Life, saved up enough to buy a Nintendo back when he was 12 years old. When he used the money to buy shares of Wal-Mart stock instead, he knew he wasn't like the other kids... His addiction to personal finance has paid off for his family and now he's helping you to afford the life that you want. Check him out on the web at Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook.

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