Monday, January 2, 2012

Soccer and the Art of Collaboration

Before writing another word, have a wonderful 2012!
I’ve played or watched soccer (or football in my country of origin - England) since I was a toddler. It’s sometimes called ‘the beautiful game’, and it can be. At it is best it is free-flowing and fast-paced; a game of skill, strength, and close teamwork. A game that can be intensely exciting, even if the final result is 0-0. Many times, a collaborative, cohesive and committed team will defeat a group of individual superstars.
One of the fundamental skills in soccer is anticipation – getting into the heads of teammates as well as those of opposition players. What do soccer players need to anticipate?
Anticipating needs
A teammate with the ball will very soon find him or herself challenged by one or more offensive players. I remember that getting caught in possession of the ball was a cardinal sin; you had to keep the ball moving between players by passing to teammates who were in a space where they could receive the ball without being put under too much pressure.  The key word in that last sentence is ‘space’. When you don’t have the ball, one of your primary responsibilities is to create a space which provides your teammate with the ball a possibility of passing to you. You look at the situation and create options for your teammate – you see the challenge and anticipate his or her need. Barcelona is an example of a football team that plays this passing game extremely well; players without the ball are in constant motion creating open space and options.
Anticipating opportunities
Football is not just physical; it is also a thinking game.  The best players can assess the possibilities in situations quickly, identify the best possible outcomes, and put themselves in positions that make those outcomes a reality. There are opportunities to attack even when defending heavily (the fast counterattack), and good players can anticipate and be prepared for such opportunities. The player that anticipates the next move is the one who is going to be in the right place at the right time.
Anticipate conditions and their consequences
Soccer is played in all kinds of weather, and the conditions can greatly alter how a team and individual should play the game. A ball bounces and travels differently on a wet or dry surface, and can be unpredictable on an uneven surface or on a pitch at high altitude. If you don’t anticipate and prepare for the conditions, you – and the team - are unlikely to perform at your best.
Anticipate strengths and weaknesses
Every team has strengths and weaknesses; the more you know about them on your team the better able you will be to anticipate how best to play to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Whatever position on the field you play, what can you do to support teammates and achieve best results? As an attacker or midfielder, how can you help close gaps in defense, and as a defender or midfielder what can you do to push the attack forward?
Anticipation is critical to collaborative team success. As a leader or team member think like a soccer player (I don’t know enough about American football, but I am sure there are similarities):
  • Am I anticipating the needs of others and creating options that benefit my individual teammates and the team, e.g. by sharing information
  • Am I anticipating opportunities for the team and positioning myself (and others) to take advantage of them?
  • Am I anticipating the conditions under which we’ll be collaborating - both favorable and unfavorable – and preparing to adjust. A virtual collaboration is a different game to face-to-face collaboration.
  • Am I anticipating the strengths and weakness of myself and others in undertaking the project and being mutual supportive?

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