Ahhh . . . spring. The smell of freshly-mown grass and budding lilacs. Crisp blue skies, a few puffy white clouds drifting by on a gentle breeze. The sweet chirping of birds and the referee’s whistle as he calls an offside offense on our team . . . yes, it’s soccer season again. I’ve spent quite a few hours sitting on the sidelines lately, watching my daughter’s soccer team struggle, learn and even triumph. And I’ve picked up a few pointers along the way.
1. First, build skills (and confidence).
My daughter’s team has spent the last couple years as the underdog in the league. The players are smaller than those on other teams, and have less experience. As a result, over the last two years the team has built an incredibly efficient defense. Since the girls weren’t able to drive the ball toward the opponent’s goal, they spent lots of time defending their own goal. They learned how to intercept passes and deflect goal shots. My daughter’s team lost most of their games last season, but it was rare that the opposing team scored more than three goals.
You might be entering the market as the underdog. You can’t expect to go right in and win market share – you’ll need to slowly build your business skills, while doing your best to deflect your competitors’ attempts to beat you. But don’t discount the value of this early time of learning; you’ll be gaining some valuable skills during your time as the underdog.
2. Be aggressive
During the time that my daughter’s team was playing a mainly defensive game, the players were timid and hesitant to drive the ball down the field. They were accustomed to having the ball taken away from them anyway, so even when their opponents made a mistake, they often stood back and waited for someone else to take control of the ball. There were many games that were played completely on one side of the field; the moment my daughter’s team got the ball it was taken back away. Something had to change.
The girls’ coach began working with them on specific techniques to be more aggressive. They did drills to practice taking the ball from the opponent, and learned skills to improve the strength and accuracy of their passes. Little by little, the team became more aggressive and began spending more time near the opponent’s goal.
Once you’ve gotten past the underdog phase of your business, it’s time to become more aggressive. Instead of just hoping to keep your competitor from taking your business, find out what his weaknesses are and capitalize on them. Is there something you can offer customers that he doesn’t?
I’m not particularly adept at the rules and best practices of soccer, but even I can tell when the girls stop communicating with each other. This is the time they start making passes to members of the opposite team, or to no one, resulting in a turnover. When the girls are playing well, they’ll call to one another, as they’re attempting to move the ball down the field. This way, the girl with the ball can know where her teammates are and help set up plays and make passes.
The coach also communicates from the sidelines. He can see the entire field much better than the players can, and if he can let them know what’s coming (and they listen), they’re much better prepared.
You have to communicate with your employees in order to make sure that you’re all working together to reach the goal. Don’t assume that everyone knows what to do – clearly communicate the steps you expect them to take.
4. Play by the rules
Aggression is one thing – playing dirty is another. Some teams just seem to do everything they can to gain advantage by throwing elbows or pushing and tripping players on purpose. When the ref catches a player breaking these rules, the player gets either a yellow card (a warning) or a red card (expelling them from the game). Of course, sometimes the ref doesn’t see the infraction, and the player gets away with misconduct, sometimes even to the benefit of her team. But sooner or later, an unruly player gets caught.
It can be tempting to bend the rules a bit with your business. Fudging your taxes, paying an employee under the table, engaging in shady advertising practices can all benefit your bottom line short-term. But when you get caught (and you will) you’ll be lucky to emerge with just a warning. These kinds of infractions can cause you to lose your business.
Sometimes a soccer team can break a rule because they just aren’t paying attention. The off-side rule in soccer is one example. A player is offside when she is on the opponent’s end of the field and is between the goalie and the opponent’s defensive players. It’s ok to be offside, but it’s against the rules for the offside player to gain advantage from that position. This usually happens when a teammate passes the ball to a player who is offside. And it’s usually the case that the team just wasn’t paying attention.
Obviously, you’ll want to pay attention to all the rules of your business. Enlist others to help you. For instance, your accountant can keep track of the filing periods to make sure that your taxes are kept up-to-date and a human resources professional can keep you abreast of the latest employment laws. “I didn’t know” is not a good enough excuse when you’re caught breaking a law.
5. Practice, practice, practice
My daughter’s team practices for an hour and a half, twice per week. Team members practice passing, shooting, kicking and footwork. They stretch their muscles and work on aerobic capacity. Without constant practice, the skills they’ve gained will quickly disappear. The team still makes many mistakes during games, but the coach focuses on correcting those mistakes during practice so that the team learns how to avoid making the same errors in the future. The coach also keeps the team focused and gives the girls specific methods and techniques so that they can reach their goals.
You’ll make mistakes in your business, and you’ll learn a lot during your first few years. Schedule some time during the week to go over what you’ve learned and think about how to avoid repeating past mistakes. Keep your goals in sight and think of concrete ways to meet those goals. Keep practicing, and you’ll get it right.