Don’t Cut Corners: In Soccer… Or in Life

October 11, 2022

by Stephen T. Messenger

I’m the assistant coach of a 13 year-old soccer team, and the first things we do every practice are stretch and run a lap around the field. I noticed an interesting phenomenon on day one. The players didn’t run the full field and cut the corners by a few steps. To prevent this, I sprinted over the meet them at the first and third corners and stood there, warning, “Don’t cut corners—in soccer… or in life!”

One of the origins of the phrase “cutting corners” comes from carriage driving in the 1800s. When horse-drawn vehicles came to a sharp turn in town, instead of going all the way past the curb, some would turn early, and the rear wheel would potentially clip the sidewalk. This could result in the cab being overturned.

In other words, “to cut corners” means to ignore safe practices to get faster results.

Case Study: Cutting School Bus Maintenance

In 2013, St. Louis school districts signed their school bus contract with First Student Inc. to provide transportation for 80,000 students. They established a manager incentivization program called “Beat Your Budget, Build Your Rewards.” The managers received cash payouts in proportion to the money they saved in maintenance.

Naturally, investment in the buses decreased, resulting in broken heaters, bad brakes, rust, and tire issues. In 2014, a semi-truck crossed the double-yellow line, heading straight towards a school bus. The driver couldn’t use the horn because it was broken—maintenance cuts meant it wasn’t repaired.

After the vehicles sideswiped and the bus stopped, the driver couldn’t call for help because the radio was broken. Cutting corners almost resulted in the loss of children’s lives.

The Excuse: But It Makes Sense…

The problem with cutting corners is that it often makes sense at the time. I took a lap with the soccer team last week, coming up behind them and warning them not to short the corners. Yet in my haste to catch up, I cut a corner myself and was quickly corrected by some players behind me. It’s easy to mess up.

I can cite a number of areas where I often cut corners: failing to pull the roots while weeding, hitting the fast food drive-thru instead of eating healthy, and conveniently forgetting that dreaded flossing (hopefully my dental hygienist mother misses this week’s article).

We all do it, and cutting corners is just easier in the moment. That is, until the weeds keep growing, the fast food results in five extra pounds, and the dentist looks at you with haughty derision.

Leaders Setting the Example

Cutting corners as an employee is bad. Cutting as a leader is worse. When in charge, all eyes are upon you. Your people know when you’re taking shortcuts. Worse, you cutting corners allows them to do the same.

In a recent study, one in four employees regularly cuts corners. Those who do so were found to struggle with treating others well, focus on themselves instead of the team, and be impulsive. My theory is that those who cut corners have bosses who cut corners. They see their boss taking the easy path and emulate the leader.

Employees traditionally follow what leaders talk about and follow up on. If your team is cutting corners, either you are too lax, or you’re not enforcing the standard.

Let Them Know Where You Stand

After a few weeks of the season, I no longer had to stand at the corners, although I still do. In fact, I no longer have to say the full phrase. Most players now complete it for me. I only have to say, “Don’t cut corners–in soccer…”

“…Or in life” they finish.

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