My first grade daughter just wrapped up her spring soccer season. If you’ve ever watched kids soccer you would not think there is much to learn about anything but the most rudimentary instructions.
“Kick the Ball!”
Over the course of the season, though, I began to notice a few things that consistently occurred that turned the outcome of every game. Each of them is directly applicable to your work and mine.
When we think of skills we tend to think of nifty, maybe flashy, and definitely enviable. But one skill overrides all the others: Effort. It is a skill to try harder than everyone else, to not give up, to hustle, to walk away knowing you gave everything you had. My daughter is not the most skilled player, but I knew that is she played with the kind of effort I asked her to she could change games for her team.
Effort can be learned, and that is remarkably encouraging because we will all find ourselves in positions where we aren’t the best or aren’t highly skilled or don’t have innate talent. But we can outwork and outhustle everyone if we want. We may never be the top performer, but we can swing outcomes in our favor.
Asking first graders to pay attention is about as fruitless as, well, asking first graders to pay attention. Time and again throughout these games a team would allow a goal because the defense was practicing ballet or the goalie was picking her nose. Even the most talented players got schooled by those who just paid attention to where the ball was and where they were supposed to be.
Like effort, we can all learn focus. In fact it is a big part of effort, the part that makes sure we trying at the right things and in the right ways. Focused effort trumps lackadaisical talent nearly every time. If you are talented and focused you are a super star. If you are only passably talented and focused you will still be an incredibly productive and valuable contributor.
Soccer, like most team sports, works best when the spacing and flow of the game is good. Players are in position and the other team are trying to get them out of position, to find angles and gaps in the defense. Well, first graders don’t think in terms of positions. They all orbit the soccer ball as it rolls around the field. It’s more like a scrum than a soccer match.
All of a sudden, though, the ball pops free and begins rolling. With every player out of position it’s a mad race to control it and kick it either into or away from the goal. Sometimes, rarely, a defender staid back and simply boots the ball clear. Sometimes, rarely, a forward staid outside the scrum and easily collects the ball for a goal. These players were in position. They were where they were supposed to be and could therefore complete the task required of them.
At work, like in sports, things fall apart when we get out of position. We miss an opportunity. We take on too much and fail. We aren’t there to assist a teammate in need. We fail because we aren’t as suited to a task as a teammate. We need to remember our spacing, our roles, our position. Avoid the scrum, stay home, and when opportunity is passed our way do what we are supposed to do.
It’s true. Some kids are simply much better soccer players than others. This is no insult to the other kids. Some kids won the genetic lottery and are faster and more coordinated. Others have former collegiate all-Americans as parents. These kids can dominate.
I say “can” because they too need effort, focus, and to be in position. But sometimes talent can overcome a lack of effort. Sometimes the talented ones just make the other look silly.
We work with people like this. They’re savants, geniuses, intuitive, sharp. They have a collection of gifts we only hope for. It’s ok to acknowledge this. I said earlier that focused effort beats talent almost every time, and that’s true, unless the talent is also focused and trying. Where does this leave us? Realistic. Grounded. And thankful that work is not a win or lose effort in most cases. It’s an effort to constantly improve, to reach goals, to grow, to learn, to achieve milestones.
And we can do this through developing the skill of effort, honing our focus, staying in position, and cleaning up every opportunity that comes our way.