What can a world full of sports bras, brightly colored cleats and carefully crafted ponytails sprinkled with just a bit of girl drama possibly have to do with gardening and strategic business growth? You’ll get the gardening parallel straight away, but as far as how it relates to business? Read on and use your imagination, I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing it out.
When my daughter, Hannah, was just nine years old, her father and I were drawn into the world of competitive travel soccer. I prefer to say that we stumbled into it backwards, he considers it a more strategic decision; either way, we’re now in our seventh year and with dozens of pairs of cleats and countless experiences (good, bad, and downright evil) in our rear view mirror, it occurred to me that the lessons learned from this experience not only parallel gardening, but they translate surprisingly well into the business world as companies look to grow their business successfully.
High Quality Seeds Yield Better Plants
Good parents raise good kids. Is it that simple? Arguably – yes. Hannah’s coach may grow weary of me reminding him of the value of good parents on the sideline, but I am passionate in my belief (led by experience) that this is a critical ingredient to success. Our team is blessed with a group of parents who never lose sight of our common goal – seeing the girls steadily improve their skills individually and play together better as a team. We are not focused on having flight winners every season, driving towards a State Cup Championship, or getting our girls staffed on a Division I college soccer team (although admittedly, all would be nice). This is a group of parents who teach their children the following: hard work is mandatory for success, life isn’t fair so deal with it, no individual player is more important than the team, your coach (not you) ultimately decides how good you are, and you do what the coach tells you to do – period. If only more children could benefit from these incredible life lessons, backed by parents who reinforce them, the caliber of our workforce would improve dramatically.
Beautiful Flower or Beautiful Garden?
No one likes a prima donna, except that prima donna. The most successful players on the team are the ones that work very hard but sustain and grow their talent throughout their career. Some players make a very big splash initially, especially when surrounded by less talented players because the situation makes them look really good. But imagine that beautiful flower surrounded by equally incredible blooms – a beautiful garden rather than just one incredible flower.
Poison Ivy Never Serves a Purpose
I really believe that you can’t swing a dead cat without finding a soccer coach who hasn’t had to deal with a Psycho Soccer Parent. These are the ones who are so driven towards an unreasonable goal that they can be surprisingly destructive. We’ve dealt with parents who not only move their child to another team but will work behind the scenes to take other players with them. Too often at tryout time I hear coaches use the term “blowing up a team”. Along the same lines, there are kids who bully on the field in ways that are crafty and destructive in ways that are really almost impressive. Either way, these players and families are poison to your garden and they need to be removed carefully, aggressively, and permanently.
Fertilize, Water, and Expose to Sun
There comes a point where providing just the right conditions will allow that plant to thrive independently with no extra effort on the gardener’s part. Ensuring that players are rested, well fed, and have a balance of school, work, and practice that is challenging enough to keep them out of trouble but not so onerous as to instill stress is critical to their success.
Certain Perennials Benefit from Pruning
Even the most gorgeous flower can benefit from a solid pruning in order to keep it full and productive. Sometimes a player can become over-confident in their abilities, and that firm but gentle reminder brings them back into focus.
A Tough Winter Can Do Long-Term Damage
They are, after all, just kids. Sadly, we can’t remove the pain and suffering that girls endure through life events like divorce and losing a family member, nor can we ensure that they don’t get caught up in the downward spiral of bad behavior. Having a team surrounding a kid that goes through tough times can certainly be a life-saver but we can’t ignore the long-term effects. Randy Pausch tells a story in the book The Last Lecture about a football coach that seems like he was being unreasonably tough on the players. The Assistant Coach noticed their frustration and explained that the coach riding them hard was a good thing. The Assistant Coach said, “when you’re screwing up and nobody’s saying anything to you anymore, that means they gave up.” Pausch adds, “And that’s a lesson that stuck with me my whole life…is that when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a very bad place to be. Your critics are your ones telling you they still love you and care.” I believe you never give up on a kid, no matter what they’ve been through. Unfortunately, it seems that some kids just can’t make it through those times and still stay in the game no matter how much the coaches care and show that they do.
Some Plants Just Need a Different Spot
Did you ever watch a plant struggle and then finally give up the fight and move it to a spot with just a bit more sun? Everyone wants to be the one that puts the ball in the net. After all, the top-selling replica jersey for the US Women’s National Team this year is that of Abby Wambach, known for her goal-scoring abilities and high profile play. But try to find a jersey for Megan Rapinoe, Midfielder Extraordinaire, defensive players (that one’s for Hannah!) or any one of the other players who execute passes with such laser focus that they go right to Abby’s foot and you’ll probably come up empty. Now if you want Goalie Hope Solo’s jersey you’ll find it. She’s a superb goalie, to be sure, and famous for more than her stint on Dancing With the Stars. But did you know that for most of her soccer career, Hope actually played Striker? Yep, right up front. Maybe that’s what makes her so good in goal, she can get into the head of the player right in front of her and read every move. I’ve seen a lot of kids do really well in a position but almost get too comfortable. Coach moves them into a different spot and although they always go through an “I SO can’t do this” period, very often they find a new home where their talents shine. And even in cases where the change doesn’t work out, they are stronger in their position because they’ve been in someone else’s cleats.
Cull Your Garden
It’s hard, really hard, to start pulling out a plant that seems like it’s thriving. But don’t be fooled, some plants need to be removed because they may be pretty, but they just don’t belong there. There comes a point in every soccer player’s career where they need to decide just how much they want to play. We’ve lost some terrific girls and talented players over the years not because they necessarily wanted to leave the game, but because they made the decision to focus on other things – other sports, academics, family, etc.. It’s always a good idea to check in with your team to make sure they are there because they truly love it, because in the end you’ll have a much more successful, cohesive, and dedicated bunch.
Pass on Your Seeds
Every player should have a love of the game that is almost contagious. I guess now would be a good time to mention that there really was no soccer where I grew up. Yet, after marrying a fan and player of the game and giving birth to two children who have grown to love it – guess what? I’m a Super Fan. No doubt about it, I now have a deep appreciation for the simplicity of soccer but yet an admiration for the unbelievable physical ability that it requires. That means that when I know of a kid that is looking for a program I will do anything in my power to find them a home in our club. That also means that my hope is that our daughter will pass on what she’s learned and enjoyed to the next generation of pony-tailed Abby Wambach-Wanna’ Be’s.
So in the end I will say what I’ve always said about Hannah playing soccer – if at the end of high school she decided to hang up her cleats we would be ok with that simply because her soccer experience was not the stereotypical one (nor am I, in any way, a stereotypical Soccer Mom). Her father and I take credit for that not just because of our spectacular parenting abilities but because we make darn sure that all of the above is true:
- She is on a team of girls that share her drive and passion and who respect each other
- She is in a club that promotes competition with integrity
- She is playing for a coach that drives her hard but cares about her success as a player and a person
- She still loves playing the game
Full Disclosure: we wouldn’t really be ok with Hannah hanging up her cleats simply because we would miss the sheer joy of watching her play.