How to Keep Shooting Stars Burning Bright

It hurts young soccer players to be given too much responsibility too early in their careers. Message here for corporate talent managers?

How to Keep Shooting Stars Burning Bright

By Matthias Spitzmuller

Corporations have much to learn from sports teams when it comes to dealing with employees, particularly with young star performers. Just as in the field of sports, companies need to build a culture that will allow their young employees to shine and grow without prematurely exposing them to too much responsibility that could lead to their downfall.

Take the cases of soccer players Freddy Adu, Giovani Dos Santos, Anderson, Denilson, and Mario Balotelli. What do they have in common? They never lived up to the promise of their talent, yet have that rare athletic gift that makes them outstanding soccer players of their generations.

There have been different explanations for the decline of these young superstars, but there is a converging theme in all of them: a lack of professionalism. Former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp once famously said that Dos Santos would be all right if he could pass a nightclub as well as he could pass the ball. Stories of Balotelli lighting up fireworks in his hotel room or throwing darts at youth players take unprofessionalism to the next level.

There is, however, an alternate explanation for the disappointing careers of these young soccer stars: they were asked to play in central positions for a club or country much earlier than they should have been. Not only did this early exposure lead to pressure and public scrutiny that these young players couldn't handle, it also, in many cases, ruined their long-term sporting careers. The question is, do these cautionary tales from sport have lessons that can be applied to rising stars in other fields, such as business?

Dimming Soccer Stars

To examine this question scientifically, my co-author, Michael Gielnik from the Leuphana University in Luneburg, Germany, and I reviewed an abundance of data. We examined the five-year career trajectories of professional soccer players in the German Bundesliga and categorized players as either occupying a central position on the team or a peripheral position, with central positions being those that occupied the most critical positions in the tactical schema of a club.

We then examined how their market value – a good indicator of career progression – developed over time. Consistent with our hypotheses, we found that young players who occupied central positions on their teams were, on average, experiencing declining careers following early exposure to these positions. In contrast, players who were utilized on the periphery of the team did not see the same decline and could gradually progress in their career over time. In other words, it hurts young players to be cast into the spotlight and be given too much responsibility too early in their careers.

What does this mean for organizations? Can corporations learn from the world of soccer in developing their best and brightest young talents? We believe so.

Young employees are best developed in an environment in which they can experiment with different behaviours, fail on a smaller scale, and grow into balanced leaders of the future

Although available data cannot speak to the intricacies within these findings, two possible factors likely play a role.

First, being in a central position in the tactical schema of a team comes with a very low tolerance for mistakes and failure. A central defender who loses a 50:50 challenge, a holding midfielder who mistimes a tackle, or a playmaker who fails to time his pass correctly can easily make the difference in low-scoring soccer games.

Research on learning in organizations indicates, however, that it is absolutely essential for employees to take risks and learn from failures. Being in a position that does not provide the tolerance for mistakes that young players need in order to develop and mature results in a lack of opportunity for growth and learning.

Second, it is well documented that young soccer players struggle to develop the emotional maturity and leadership capabilities that would be expected from someone with a central position on a team. The discrepancy between technical talent and ability and a lack of leadership skills can result in frustration and defeat for clubs, and declining careers for players.

Young employees are best developed in an environment that is psychologically safe for them, an environment in which they can experiment with different behaviours, fail on a smaller scale, learn from these experiences, and grow into more mature and balanced leaders of the future.

Be it in the corporate world or professional soccer, developing talent takes time and patience, from managers, owners, and fans in the professional soccer world, and managers, employees, and stakeholders in the corporate world. There is no shortcut to accelerate this process.


Matthias Spitzmuller is associate professor and Toller Family Fellow of organizational behaviour, Smith School of Business. This essay originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.