Real Life Leading #18
Ragged: 5 Lessons From Preseason Training
This week was the first week of full training (not just running) for my high school soccer team’s new season, and I learned a handful of valuable lessons that I felt were worth passing on and applying in other areas of life. This is my fifth year coaching at Westbrook Christian School, and we’ve been very blessed to have had some pretty great success. As a result of that, sometimes my expectations were a bit too high for the first week, and it took me a few days to realize it. By the way, I also learned there is a difference between ‘expectations’ and ‘standards,’ but more on that in a minute.
Lesson 1: Expect things to be a bit ragged at first.
Each of the past two seasons, our high school girls soccer team has made it to the state championship game. After that first appearance, we graduated seven seniors. After the second appearance, we graduated eight more seniors. So we have lost a significant amount of talent in the past couple seasons. However, we also have a lot of young players that are talented and promising. As a result of that, my expectations for the first week of training were sky-high, and so I was actually a little disappointed with our first couple of practices. It was only after discussing this with my wife and also my assistant coaches that I realized my expectations were unrealistic.
I find this is true in many areas of life: we have certain expectations based on past experiences, and then when the reality fails to meet the expectations, we are disappointed. This often happens with long-planned vacations or with Christmas-time family gatherings. We view our memories through ‘nostalgia goggles’ and then wonder why our present experiences don’t quite measure up to what we had pictured in our heads. This is what I was doing with my soccer team as well. When I stepped back to look at my team more objectively, I was also able to remember that even with those previous teams, our first few practices were pretty ragged.
This is natural for any new endeavor as well: remember what is was like the first time you tried to drive a stick-shift? Or the first time you used the vacuum cleaner as a child and got the cord tangled around various furniture? Whenever we begin a new season in our lives, we should expect it to take a while to smooth things out.
Lesson 2: Correct the mistakes and encourage the successes.
As the week of practice went on, I found that I had two primary tasks: correcting the mistakes and encouraging the successes of my players. Even the older, more experienced players needed to be reminded of certain aspects of technique and positioning, just as we often need to be reminded of certain things we’ve previously mastered. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “We need to be reminded much more often than we need to be taught.”
In addition to correcting the mistakes, I also wanted to make sure that I was pointing out what my players were doing well. There's a saying in the teaching profession: "It's important to catch students doing things right." This is true at home, in an office, or on a playing field: if the leaders will catch people doing things right and point it out, especially things that were previously being done incorrectly, this has a lasting impact on the whole group.
Lesson 3: You have to be looking for the successes in order to see them.
Most people have experienced a situation in which we struggled with a task, finally overcame the obstacle, and then were bummed out when we realized that no one even noticed we’d finally achieved our goal. That’s a particularly frustrating place to be. So as leaders, we have to make sure that we’re constantly on the lookout for things that our followers are doing well so that we can be sure to notice them.
At home, if my daughters clean up their rooms or do the dishes without being asked, I try to be sure to thank them for that so as to encourage this behavior again in the future. On the other hand, if they do extra housework and it goes unappreciated or unnoticed, they are less likely to repeat that same action again. So we need to be sure to pay attention in order to make sure we see the successes, even if they’re only small ones. When we catch people doing things well and then show them that we appreciate it, it can go a long way. But in order to do this, we have to be looking for the successes and victories.
Lesson 4: Set your standards high and keep them there.
Years ago when I was teaching at a large public school in Fayetteville, North Carolina, I heard my principal say, “Having a great school is easy: set your standards high and then keep them there.” He made it sound so simple. And then he continued, “Oh, and hire a good lawyer.” His point was two-fold: first, if we set and keep high standards, it will help to raise the level of performance (provided we go about this in the right way); and second, keeping high standards will always be met with resistance by those who do not want to put in the work of maintaining those high standards.
Fortunately, most of us don’t face the prospect of a lawsuit in the way that public schools often do. The point about high standards is true in every area of life, though, and it is the leader’s job to set the standards and keep them there. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is a difference between expectations and standards: our expectations are often based on past experiences even when the circumstances have changed, while our standards are what we hope to achieve and maintain in the future, taking the new circumstances into account. So as leaders, let’s have realistic expectations while also setting and maintaining high standards for our groups, teams, and businesses.
Lesson 5: It's crucial to lead the leaders.
Not all leaders are created equal, especially when it comes to influence. Most people have experienced the truth of this as children on a playground or as employees in an office. Some people have a commanding presence simply upon entering a room, while others may more easily fade into the background, whether by choice or due to circumstances. So as leaders one of our tasks is to pay attention to see who the primary influencers in the group are. Once we have identified them, then we need to be sure that we are especially focusing on helping them be the type of influence that we want in our groups.
On the soccer field, this means that I need to choose my captains carefully. My leaders are not always my most skilled players or my most vocal players, just as the leaders in an office are not always the employees who are making the most money or the ones getting the most public recognition. The leaders are the ones that change the atmosphere by their presence, whether positively or negatively. If we are to have a lasting impact on our groups, we need to begin by leading the leaders that are already emerging and also keeping an eye out for the next group of leaders so as to be preparing the groundwork for the future.
Action step: this week, pay extra attention to make sure that you are catching your audience doing things well and encouraging them for it. Let me know what you see and how you pointed it out to them.