Lessons From the Beautiful Game

Maybe you can't take a corner kick or head a ball but you can dribble through sticky work situations with these soccer insights

The essentials

Matthias Spitzmuller has been playing soccer (football to the non-North American cognoscenti) since he was six years old. In his native Germany, passion for the beautiful game is usually passed down from father to son, he says. Spitzmuller's recent soccer accolades include his playing in the Cosmoleague for the German All Stars Singapore, considered the best amateur league in that country. While in Singapore, he also worked part-time as a television commentator and studio analyst, covering the German league and German international team. As an assistant professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business, Spitzmuller's research focuses on team leadership and on helping and cooperative work behaviours. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, he discusses the lessons that can be learned from soccer's approach to team dynamics, conflict resolution, and strategy.

Search For Team Synergy

Part of my research looks at how you motivate teams and the factors that drive a team's success. For me as a soccer player, I've always found it fascinating to see how a collection of individuals rarely defeats a team that really plays as a unit. There's a synergy, that little something extra that teams can capitalize on if everybody is on the same page and running for each other on the field.

For me, what is especially interesting is how powerful that little something extra can be. A key question is: what is it that drives teams to go that extra mile, both on the soccer field and within organizations, with the primary intention of benefiting the team and not the self?

Assign Specialized Roles

In soccer, the players' roles are clear, from being a central defender to a left or right winger. Without these very specialized roles, the team would cease to function. In fact, we know that the most successful teams are those that assign roles to individuals and that develop the specific skills that players need to play certain positions.

In an organizational context, the same is true. To be successful, you need a team where each individual is willing to assume one very specialized role. The conflict that often unfolds to challenge this need is that too many people try to be the leader, which can easily lead to conflict. Instead of doing what is necessary, you have teams where people are not willing to take on roles that are critical for the team as a whole, roles that might not make them shine as much as they would like.

Move from asking ‘what’ to asking ‘why’

The world of soccer is rife with emotion. As such, it's a common occurrence for coaches or team captains to give pep talks in order to yield an emotional or passionate response from their peers.

I recall one game we were playing in Singapore against the British team where the odds of winning seemed to be stacked against us. It was a day in which we had a lot of injured players and the team was already feeling defeated before the game began. When we were lining up to shake hands with the other team, our captain said, “Folks, let's remember why we play this game. We play it because we are friends who love this game and because we are proud to represent Germany in Singapore. This is home, far away from home.”

Often times, in an organizational setting, employees know what they have to do, but it is easy to forget the answer to the ‘why’ question that gives meaning and that truly moves people to go the extra mile.

Protect Young Performers

Right now, I'm working on a project with a German colleague analyzing soccer data from the German league between 2000 and 2005. We're looking at how the roles of younger versus older players have on a team affects their performance. The results are interesting. What we found is that the performance of an individual player is affected negatively when young players assume key positions (such as playing as a central midfielder) on a team too early.

This lesson translates in an organizational context as we see the value of protecting young individuals from taking on too much responsibility early on in their careers. They are more effective if they first learn the ropes and have a strong mentor who teaches them what to do in a given situation so as to avoid getting in over their head. There is truth in the old saying that you have to protect young stars from themselves before they can truly shine.

Sacrifice Individual Results for the Collective

Simply put, successful soccer teams function on a basis of sacrificing your own individuality for the good of the collective. That's what soccer ultimately comes down to. Over the course of a 90-minute game, the average player usually only touches the ball about 50 times, less than once a minute. But players must be okay with this as working together benefits the team as a whole.

Interview by Vanessa Santilli

Photo by Claire Bouvier

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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