Lead Like Your Kid’s Soccer Coach

By Stephen T. Messenger

March 22, 2022

Sports coaches have a wide range of leadership styles, ranging from complete stoicism to constant rage. Watching the March Madness tournament this month, it’s fascinating to see how each coach leads differently both during the game and in the locker room.

Most started their careers working with kids. In these youth sports leagues, coaches see children rotate in and out of their programs and have indelible impacts on them for the rest of their lives—good or bad. Across the nation, the leadership of coaches is talked about at dinner tables every night.   

Every so often, a family gets lucky with their child’s coach. This year we scored with, in my opinion, the number one coach in our soccer league. As the assistant coach, I get to watch how he coaches more than just sports, but character.

There’s a wide gap between an outstanding coach and a “we just need a coach” volunteer, just like there’s a wide gap between a leader in your workplace and someone who’s just supervising.

While coaching youth soccer and leading your organization are completely different, many of the traits that make a good coach also make a good leader.

Technically Proficient. The best leaders are students of the game. Our coach played at the national level and now passes on his knowledge to our 12 and 13-year-olds. Every week he’s teaching them a different skill to gain a competitive advantage.

  • Many leaders don’t know their people’s tasks. To truly understand how to lead, they need to be able to teach the details of what their employees do every day. Your job is to create efficiencies.

Hold High Standards. Our coach is constantly analyzing and providing feedback on each movement and kick from the players. He holds them to a high standard—if it’s wrong, do it again.

  • Mediocre leaders don’t know the standards themselves and when they do, they don’t correct mistakes. If a leader isn’t going to hold people accountable, why are they there?

Provide Positive Feedback. Phil Jackson, a former Los Angeles Lakers coach, tried to provide five positive comments for every one negative to his players. Our coach is a positive feedback machine. He rotates around the field and continuously compliments each player on how they’re doing, even if it’s just effort.

It’s All about Getting Better. Actor Dave Waters once said: “If a company isn’t continuously improving then it is slowly dying.” Our coach understands that everyone enters at a different level, and success is measured by overall development, not the number of wins. He knows every touch of the soccer ball is a chance to improve.

  • Often leaders solely focus on short-term wins at the expense of long-term gains. There must be a balance in deepening the bench and cross-training. 

Extremely Fun. The older I get, the more convinced I am that if a leader isn’t having fun, they need to find a new job. Coach loves to be on the field. He loves to instruct. He loves to make practice not just challenging, but enjoyable through games, competitions, and jokes.

  • If you as a leader aren’t having fun, your people aren’t having fun.  

Create Lasting Bonds. Coach takes extra care to learn each kid’s name on the first practice and use it often. He knows something personal about everyone and tries to make lasting connections. Even after only being in the league a year, he knows kids on the other teams, and they all want to come over and say hi.

  • The best leaders offer ways to connect even after leaving an organization. Leadership doesn’t end when people separate from work. Instead, it lasts for years and years. 

Sports coaching and organizational leadership have a lot of similarities. At work and at home, we all need to lead more like our kid’s soccer coach!

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