I’ve had the opportunity and privilege to coach all three of my kids in various sports over the past 7+ years. It was something that I knew I wanted to do and had planned on ever since they were babies. My wife and I both grew up playing multiple sports and in addition to the physical benefits, they can be critical to the development of a child into their teens and beyond. We both feel strongly that individual and team sports are great for building character, shaping habits, developing emotional skills, understanding team dynamics, and rewarding effort and performance.
It’s been an interesting journey and learning opportunity as I’ve transitioned my coaching responsibilities from 4 year old soccer to pre-teen basketball. I don’t reflect back on my time and experiences often enough, but the other day I was somewhat forced to do so as I questioned the impact I was having on my middle-daughter’s basketball team. I am a competitive person and so are my kids, so I can forget that they are only 12, 10, and 8 years old and should ultimately be enjoying the sports they are playing. We also live in a part of Austin that is consistently competitive in all aspects of life, but especially when it comes to athletics. After a tough basketball game where we lost by 1 point, I asked my wife, “do you think the girls are having fun and how do you think I’m doing as their coach?” She paused and I could see her trying to figure out how to tell me the truth without hurting my feelings. “You should change how you talk to them…..maybe it would help if you heard yourself and what your voice sounds like when you are yelling plays and instructions during the game.”
There it was…..The truth.
I immediately responded with, “No way, they are big girls and understand that I’m only trying to help them get better.” She was quiet for a second before she countered with, “well, you told me to tell you the truth. You can sound almost angry when they don’t execute a play. And your physical reactions on the sidelines adds to it. Like throwing your hands up or just being visibly upset when they make a bad play. The kids are still learning.”
I had two options from this point…. Dig in and deny the feedback that I just asked for. Or accept it and use it to be a better coach and help our girls learn while enjoying the experience. I chose the latter of course…. Otherwise this post would be pretty short.
As I was working on how to use her feedback to be a better coach, I reflected on how I even got to this point. It felt like just yesterday, I was running around a soccer field pretending that the shot from a 4 year old into my leg actually hurt (that always produced smiles by the way). I’ve had to evolve as a coach as the kids get older and the complexity of the game continues to increase. I played college basketball, so having one or two inbounds plays and a few simple offensive and defensive sets isn’t necessarily complex, but my style as a coach, parent, and hopefully role model has had to adapt. As I reflect back on how my coaching style needed to change, I thought about how my evolution as a manager, leader, and entrepreneur was similar in the business world. Let’s go back in time…..
Pre-K and Kindergarten: The Joyful Beginnings of Coaching and Business
As business owners and leaders, understanding the evolution of your role and the growth of your team is crucial. Just like coaching youth sports, where the transition from managing four and five-year-olds to ten and eleven-year-olds requires a shift from pure fun to integrating strategy and winning, leading a business also demands adaptation as the company matures.
In the initial stages of coaching toddlers and tiny athletes, the focus is on creating a fun and engaging environment. This is just like the startup phase of a business where the atmosphere is often energetic, and the primary aim is to spark interest and keep the team motivated. To be specific, a coach for young kids will use games and activities that are less about competition and more about enjoyment and learning basic skills. Similarly, a new business leader might focus on team-building exercises, creating a vibrant company culture, and ensuring that employees grasp the core values and mission of the company. It’s also a pretty “messy” era where the business can feel like it’s all over the place trying to find ways to get customers and grow. You’ve all seen those little kids traveling in close packs wherever the ball goes, pushing and shoving at a chance to score and make their parents proud. It looks like complete chaos, but sometimes a goal is a goal. They figure out a way to score and hopefully learn something in the process.
1st-3rd Grade: Introducing Strategy and Competition
This age group is still mostly about fun and although there is a clear difference from 3rd grades to 1st graders, I found that the kids start to gain an understanding of the final score, developing aggressiveness, and improving on fundamentals. In this stage, you begin to introduce strategies, tactics, and a focus on the competition. But, even as the complexity starts to creep in, maintaining the element of enjoyment is key to preventing burnout and fostering a continued love for the game. This is what my self-talk looked like on many occasions during practice with 2nd graders running around……“dude, they are freaking 7 years old! Let them have fun.” Sometimes that would work and every now and then the kids would find themselves running sprints! The dreaded phrase from a coach….”Everyone on the line!”
As the kids grow, the coaching strategy evolves to introduce more structure and competitive elements. This reflects a business’s development phase, where the initial market response has been gauged, and there’s a need for more defined roles, processes, and strategies to compete effectively in the market. In coaching, this might involve teaching players the importance of positions, passing, and teamwork, rather than just dribbling the ball. In business, this could translate to developing a marketing strategy, streamlining operations, or focusing on customer acquisition and retention tactics. It’s a critical juncture where the foundational fun and games give way to more competitive strategies without losing the initial spark.
4th-5th Grade: Managing Growth and Complexity
“Ok ladies, you’re in 4th grade now and basketball is about to get real, so you better come ready to compete every night!” This is meant to be a joke, but it’s very likely something that 4th grade girls have heard in my ultra-competitive part of Austin. I’ve probably said some form of it myself, but with a little more chill for the benefit of the children of course.
As a business leader, you have stakeholders, employees, and others who rely on you to perform. It may be weird to say, but as I’m coaching these 9-10 year olds, I feel pressure from the kids to guide them, but also from the parents to educate while we win. Nobody wants to go watch their kid struggle and get crushed at any competition, me included. It is extremely possible that I am the one creating this pressure rather than them actually putting it on me as the volunteer coach, but nonetheless, I want to be successful. My ideal vision of success is the players develop and get better, they understand the benefit of putting in an effort, they learn to be a good teammate, and they want to come back again to play next season.
Similarly, in the early stages of a business, it’s all about laying the foundations and managing the basic functions. As the business develops, complexities emerge. Like young athletes progressing to executing strategic plays, business teams evolve from simple operations to more sophisticated systems and processes.
For instance, a small start-up with a handful of employees is straightforward to manage. Each person has their role and direct coaching is manageable. As the company grows, you may find multiple personalities and skill sets within a single department. The challenge is to harness these differences effectively, ensuring that everyone thrives while still contributing to the team’s collective goals. It changes the dynamic of your business when you get to the point of having two people responsible for the same thing like sales, accounts receivable, operations, etc. Once this starts to happen, you need to consider documented systems, processes, and expectations for each role. Kind of like when you have two players that play the same position but have different strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t change the overall goal you have for that role, but it may affect how you manage and lead each person when they’re in the game.
With older athletes, coaches begin to manage more complex game plans and dynamics. In business, as the company grows, so does the complexity of managing a larger workforce and more intricate operations. This might involve integrating new technology, expanding into additional markets, or onboarding more team members. Leadership carries new challenges as one is responsible for keeping the team aligned with the company’s vision, despite the complexities. They must ensure communication remains clear and that the team members are not only aware of their priorities, but also understand how their roles fit into the larger picture of the organization’s goals and mission.
The Dreaded Middle School Years: The Art of Feedback and Empowerment
In both coaching and business, feedback is a vital tool for evolution. By seeking and integrating feedback from players, parents, and colleagues, you can refine your approach and foster an environment of continuous improvement. However, there’s a balance to be struck between guiding and micromanaging. This is an age at which coaches and parents are figuring out how to empower the kids by setting expectations and providing tools and advice as to how they can be met. To all those lawnmower parents out there (google it if you’re not familiar), your ability to influence is waning and it’s up to the student/player to learn how to step up. This means that the coach must provide clear expectations along with offering the support when needed for the kid to succeed. The coach is also responsible for putting the right people in the right place. The total chaos method from Pre-K soccer won’t work here and you won’t win if you simply let everyone play the position they want. But the hardest thing for a coach is that they can’t play the game for them! It’s imperative that they figure out a way to put them in a position to be successful.
So how is this any different from the business world? In my opinion, it’s not. Consider examples like when a coach uses game film to show players how to approach a situation differently, or a sales leader reviewing recorded demo calls to improve close rate. The key is to provide constructive feedback and establish clarity in expectations to be able to empower team members to take ownership of their performance. If a business owner is constantly stepping in to fix the situation without providing the opportunity or space for their team member to learn so they can do it the next time, they are failing as a leader. Harsh, but like my wife’s feedback…. it’s true!
Any Age: Building a Sustainable Team Culture
Reflecting on my years of coaching my kids’ teams, the parallels with business leadership are clear as day. Both involve nurturing development, placing people in positions where their strengths can be utilized and developed, and creating a culture where each member is eager to contribute and grow. It’s about building a team that not only plays well today but is also excited to return season after season, year after year.
The final stage in both coaching and business leadership is creating a sustainable culture that ensures longevity. It involves nurturing a sense of belonging and purpose within the team, where every member feels valued and motivated to contribute. In sports, this could mean developing a team tradition or ritual that embodies the team’s spirit. In business, it could be about establishing core values that resonate with every employee, encouraging innovation, and recognizing individual contributions. Culture is unfortunately not something you can fully track on a scoreboard, but you can feel and appreciate it when you have it. It’s what you use to hire new people, establish roles and priorities, understand why your business exists, and ultimately what keeps your people rowing in the same direction.
My “morals of the story” (based on age and business stage groups):
- Pre-K and Kindergarten: Be a clown, have fun, and create energetic entertainment while teaching basic fundamentals.
- 1st-3rd Grade: Focus on fun, but start implementing more structure along the way.
- 4th-5th Grade: Complexity will creep in, but maintain enjoyment in the journey while harnessing strategic advantages and focus on your mission.
- The Dreaded Middle School Years: Ensure you have the right people in the right places. Be clear on expectations, empower them, and provide the tools and support for your team to be successful.
- Any Age: Focus on culture by having clarity in your vision with where you want to go as a business.