I found myself standing alone, after those in the line had suddenly, and all at once, taken a large step backwards.
It had the hallmarks of that movie scene where the person is ‘volunteered’ by the simple fact that everyone else had moved quicker.
Had I won something? Had I lost something? Had I been volunteered to join the Army? Had I been volunteered to make that door entry into a burning building? No. It was much more terrifying than that.
It was to coach my son’s Under-6 soccer team.
When the mighty West Pennant Hills / Cherrybrook Football Club needed a coach for the Under 6 Purple Lions, my name somehow ended up on the rego papers and I got a terrible photo of me on my Club Card thrown in for free.
Not having played soccer since I was about his age (I ended up playing rugby through school, University and beyond), and certainly not knowing how to coach half a dozen 5 year olds, I started my journey as ‘Coach Michael’ with a feeling of uncertainty.
Fast forward to a Tuesday night half way through the season. Training (well, 75 minutes of utter bedlam) has finished, and the kids are finally in bed asleep. I’m pouring myself a glass of the second most delicious tequila I’ve ever tasted, and I got to wondering who was getting more out of this coaching experience, the kids, or me?
Because we all love a list, here’s….
The Top 5 things a purple lion can teach you.
If you approach coaching, leading, motivating (and herding) half a dozen 5 year olds, with unrealistic expectations and a short fuse, you’ll find yourself maddeningly frustrated, surrounded by crying children, and thoroughly disappointed with the whole experience.
If you approach the same activity with a clear mind, a structured approach, and the fortitude to endure the inevitable frustration, the kids will respond positively, you’ll enjoy the experience a whole lot more, and while they don’t officially keep score, the team will certainly score more goals than it concedes.
2. Show me, don’t tell me
Are you a visual, audio or kinesthetic learner? As we mature, research shows that while we have a preference, we can flip between the three depending on the situation. Children however, are primarily visual or kinesthetic learners, so trying to explain a complex drill with words to a horde of over-excited 5 year olds is both difficult, and frankly, a waste of time.
Grab a ball, show them the drill twice, and leave them to it though? It works. Every. Single. Time. Of course you’ll need to refine the lesson after they’ve started, and sometimes you’ll need to sit them all down and show them again, but come on, they’re 5. If you succeed in explaining it to them as they obediently sit cross-legged on the dewy grass down at Campbell Park….well….send me a video of how you do it, because I won’t believe you until I see it.
3. It’s hard to fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys
We played a local team last month, with one of the girls (it’s a mixed league) on the opponents team, head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch. She could dribble, pass, shoot, the whole box and dice. What hampered her however was that because the majority of the game is simply eight 5 year olds swarming around the ball, kicking each other in the shins and laughing, she often couldn’t find the space to get the ball out of the melee. She was an eagle surrounded by turkeys.
It turns out she was the youngest sister of 4 older brothers, in a Columbian family, according to the coach, where soccer was second only to breathing in level of importance. I fully expect one day to see her play for the Matilda’s one day.
4. Praise is a more effective than punishment when it comes to performance
It was about four weeks into the season, when the boys had gotten to know me and each other a little more, they’d picked up some of the basic fundamentals of the game, and had settled into the routine of training, when the pandemonium started. Boys running around with their training bibs up over their faces, boys running around flapping their arms like a bird, boys getting INTO the little goals and wrestling each other, the list goes on…..
I pleaded with them to stop, and focus on the training drills. I tried imposing a stricter method of coaching in an attempt to quell the uprising. At first there were looks of surprise, followed by scornful laughter, followed then by more wrestling in the little goals.
It had proven to be entirely ineffective.
I sought advice from one of the other parents who had coached in a previous year. He laughed and said he’d faced the exact same problem. His advice? Offer the boys an arbitrary ‘point’ for any good behaviour. Not a good pass, kick, or shot at goal, but good behaviour. Counter-point that with a Two Warning then you’re out penalty system for poor behaviour. The effect was immediate and astonishing. The boys sought out these arbitrary ‘points’ for good behaviour like a dog seeks treats for sitting before it crosses the road. Wrestling in the goal reduced to zero. Arm flapping reduced to zero. Are they occasionally distracted? Of course. They’re animals. Is training a thoroughly more enjoyable experience for everyone. My word it is.
5. Helping someone up is good for both of you
We have 3 Rules in the Purple Lions.
Rule #1 – Try your best
Rule #2 – Have fun
Rule #3 – If anyone falls over, help them up
Rules 1 and 2 are really just basic parenting, and we’re lucky that all the boys in our team already seem to demonstrate these qualities. Rule 3 however is where I’ve seen the biggest improvement in their overall growth as men; as humans. This is not to say they were bad kids beforehand, far from it, but when the opposition coach grabs you after a game and comments on the sportsmanship of the boys helping kids up (on both teams) after the inevitable tumble and occasional teary moment, you know it’s working.
So that’s it. That’s my list. The Top 5 things a purple lion can teach you.
So what next?
Next is – me asking you a favour. Start again at the beginning of this post and replace “5 year old / boy / kid” with “work colleague” (other than the bit where they ran around with their training bibs over their faces…), and replace “Purple Lions” with “Your work team“.
Seemingly by magic, the lessons still apply don’t they?! There’s really very little fundamental difference in leading a team of 5 year olds to leading a team of 25, 35, 45 year olds. Sure the crazy sh!t they do is different, but the leadership principles are the same:
- Be patient
- Modify your message to suit your team’s (or individual’s) preferred method of learning
- Give your star performers room to move
- Create an environment of praise over punishment to drive performance
- Foster a space where people go out of their way to help each other
Sounds like a team I’d like to work in.
Taken to school by a bunch of 5 year olds. I’m learning every day. And really, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Do you have a leadership role outside your usual day to day job? Are there things you’ve learned that you’d like to share with our readers? Leave a comment below!