I blame soccer (teamwork) | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |


Local Blogs

By Douglas Moran

I blame soccer (teamwork)

Uploaded: Mar 28, 2015

A society's values can be seen in the games its children play (to a lesser extent for adults). Games embody values?what skills and knowledge are important?and make learning and improvement fun. This ancient principle has recently acquired a name, "gamification". The games that children are encouraged to play not only reflect a society's values, but reinforced them: The children most successful at the games acquire status, becoming more likely to become the next generation of leaders, in which role they will promote the games that emphasize their values?

"Russians play chess; Americans play checkers" is a saying that probably dates back to the early years of the Cold War, but is still in use. The analogy was to point out the Russian leadership had been trained to think many moves ahead, and to consider the complex interactions of game pieces that had different capabilities and strengths. And that the US leadership routinely failed badly in this regard.(foot#1) But an routinely overlooked consequence of this analogy is that the Russian populace expects this of their leaders, and the US populace doesn't.(foot#2)

Although it will only slowly emerge, this blog entry is a follow-up to an earlier one on Neighborhood Associations, and more generally on what it means to be a community. This will not be a discussion of the pros-and-cons and relative merits of specific games: pointless and over-discussed elsewhere. Nor is it about games as played at "elite" or otherwise "selective" levels (such as varsity for major high school athletics). Nor watching games. This is to spur parents to think about the cumulative effects of the range of games that their children are playing.

So, why I am "picking on" soccer in my title that I intend to be an attention-grabber? Because when I talk to parents?neighbors and relatives and friends both here and elsewhere?what they see as the primary benefit of soccer is "exercise", and unquestionably it is superior to many of the other traditional childhood sports in that area. I don't remember a single parent mentioning "teamwork" in conjunction with soccer. In my experience when I got pulled in to help friends-and-family with practices, almost all the time was spent on individual skills. The teamwork was trivial, and what they would have encountered and mastered years younger if playing a sport such as basketball, football, or volleyball. Most kids I know have moved on from soccer before reaching the level where non-trivial teamwork becomes a factor. (And soccer is hardly alone in this)

Let me propose what I will call "The Picnic Tests" for sports as played by the typical child. You are at a large scale picnic or similar outing, and the decision is made to play one of these sports.
? Test 1 is how are teams formed: Is it enough to simply try to balance individual skill levels, or do the players try to team up with those they have experience playing with?
My experience: soccer is the former, and the basketball-football-volleyball sports are the later.
? Test 2: For an adult unfamiliar with many of the children playing, can s/he spot those that have history?
? Test 3: Does teamwork contribute to the effectiveness or success of the teams?

Although you can learn about the principles of teamwork from books, seminars and the like, that won't make you an effective teamplayer. Teamwork is about a lot of "micro-transactions"?it needs to be so well practiced that it is a reflex and ingrained in your personality/character. Most of the time, you don't have time to think about what to do. In many ways, its like learning to throw a ball overhand. Games?athletic and otherwise?tend to be your only opportunity to get the amount of practice needed to acquire these abilities.

Let me begin with examples from basketball, since we are in its tournament season. And rather than discuss it in the manner that kids are coached, I will use the perspective of a Silicon Valley adult. When a team is on offense, the top priority of the players who don't have the ball is to support the ball-handler in taking the risks needed to score, or at least get the team in a better position to score. This risk mitigation starts with providing him with a safe alternative should the risks get too high, that is, someone to pass to should he be too well defended. The next part is failure mitigation: If he shoots and misses, be prepared for the rebound, and should the other team get the ball, be positioned to prevent the easy score. The second priority is to improve the ball-handler's chances of success, using various techniques to weaken the defense. The lowest priority is to put yourself in a position to become the next ball-handler, and thus potential scorer. Again, players don't think in these terms?they don't have the time. Rather, these judgments and values are embedded at a much lower level of their thinking.

Similarly for risk/failure mitigation when a team is on defense: A player can take high-payoff risks if he has confidence in his teammates reactions.

One of the bizarre experiences of living in Silicon Valley is all the shills for "entrepreneurship" who preach taking risks as purely positive. Do these shills come from such privileged backgrounds that they are shielded from negative consequences and so far removed from mitigation measures that they are oblivious to them? Regardless, games have long provided children with opportunities to experiment with coping.

--Netscape Implosion--
When Netscape Communications imploded in the late 1990s, a common diagnosis was that Microsoft didn't kill it, but rather that it was at most an assisted suicide. But it wasn't until those former Netscape employees landed in a range of other tech startups that there was a broader sense of how toxic its culture must have been. A common complaint was that these were people for whom "the enemy/competition" were those in the surrounding cubicles rather than their company's competitors. Example expressions of exasperation: "He would rather be the high-scorer on a team that is badly beaten than be on a winning team" and "He is more likely to take the ball/puck away from a teammate than an opponent."(foot#3)

--CEO is not an entry-level position!--
Many of the private responses to my blog on Neighborhood Associations commented that those problems were part of a more general problem with civic activities, that of the difficulty of creating the necessary teams. There were comments about the series of meetings that never got anything done because too many of the participants were unwilling to stay on topic, much less focus on what was important, and there were too few with any passion for driving the discussions to a decision, much less taking action. There were even comments that too many Palo Altans no longer seem to even understand the concept of having a disciplined, purposeful discussion. I anticipate that this phenomenon will be reflected in the comments, for example, seeing a comment based upon disregarding the word "example".

I have "been there" so often that I am thinking maybe it is time to replace the characterization "Herding cats" with "Herding jackrabbits". But for all the appearance of motion from jackrabbits, on the larger time scale there really is little: Despite their speed and quick zigs and zags, hares usually wind up roughly where they started from. So when you take that step back, it isn't all that different from "Herding tortoises".

I hear a related observation from people who have walked away from such activities in utter frustration. A substantial portion of the participants, sometimes a significant majority, were so ill-behaved that they couldn't have been more destructive if they were intentionally trying to sabotage the meeting/activity. While sometimes this is cluelessness, it sometimes seems the participant's primary goal is to establish dominance. And this is not just men, but women as well (sometimes more so).

There were comments about potential volunteers who were willing to lead an activity that they would create, but who were unwilling to join a related activity. So the former never happened and the latter died, both from the inability to reach critical mass. Another type of non-contributing volunteer is the "individual contributor": He creates work for others, but refuses to direct his efforts into something others can readily use.

Symptomatic of this insistence on being "the leader" is the bastardization of the term "CEO", which has a very specific meaning, to apply to the head of even trivial efforts. When someone identifies him/herself as "the CEO" of a group of three part-timers? This seems to be a combination of puffery, vanity/hubris, and simple ignorance. Just an aside?it is off-topic here.

A related metaphor commonly heard, especially from males, is about being "the sharp tip of the spear". This often involves a dismissive attitude about the rest of the metaphorical spear, sometimes openly expressed as "Without the tip, a spear is nothing but a blunt stick." Yes, but without that "blunt stick", that sharp tip is pretty useless, little more than a sharp edge on a modest piece of metal, bone or stone. For a thrown spear, that "blunt stick" causes the "sharp tip" to strike at an optimal angle and provides the momentum needed for it to penetrate. For a thrusting spear, it is the handle that allows force to be applied while providing its wielder the limited protection afforded by separation distance. Belaboring the point in (foot#4)

Note: The childhoods of many of these people described above pre-dated the rise of soccer in the US, invalidating my purported hypothesis (of its being soccer's fault).

Football is interesting because it is contrary to current gamification theory which underlies the design of many modern games, especially computer-based games, and which is being pushed as a way to structure (corporate) work. Most of the members of a football team have no expectation of having even the opportunity to score, and of the individual recognition that comes with that. Thus, there are very different lessons learned and attitudes developed. Part of a player's sense of success comes from the team's success, part comes from recognition from their teammates, and part comes from inside themselves, from knowing how well they did.

Remember, this discussion is about the type of football likely to be played for fun by generic children. However, a useful example from the NFL: Much criticism is directed at pass receivers who "give up on their routes" when they know that the pass isn't coming to them. Casual watchers of football misunderstand this, thinking the player is being criticized simply for lack of enthusiasm or similar, and sympathize with the player for not pointlessly wasting energy. Instead that player failed to perform a crucial task?being a decoy?because it was thankless, and largely invisible. As a decoy, a good wide receiver will not only pull his defender (a cornerback) away from where the ball is going, but also cause another defender (likely a safety) adjust in his direction. At its core, football is about resource allocation, hence the frequent committee meetings (huddles). Causing the opponent to misallocate one additional player?9% of its resources?is a huge advantage.

A major component of many games is the challenge of balancing competing demands or priorities, thereby allowing the game to be fun as you acquire the individual skills. In our current example of football, consider the example of a defensive lineman (DL) The simplistic notion of his role is that he goes after the player with the ball. Offenses love coming up against players who think this way?they are easy to neutralize and defeat. Since the offense has both a plan to neutral him and the initiative, our example DL needs to think of success in other ways. He starts to think of himself as a "disruptor", of the offense's initiative, of its plan, of its back-up plan and of its options to improvise. Instead of making the big play, think about how to tie up more "resources" than the opponent planned to use to neutralize you. Or move to create opportunities for a teammate. But should that opportunity fall to you, so be it.

The well-trained DL will learn that the offense's advantages are such that he will often be overwhelmed, and that an important part of his job is to make it easier for help to arrive faster, and that the offense will be trying to prevent that. A child hasn't grasped the essence of the DL position until he understands that it is both attacking the offense and defending the defense.

Should you expect a player, especially a child, to be able to articulate this? No. To recognize it if you articulate it? Almost certainly not. In fact, expect him to look at you as if you are crazy. But if you watch more experienced children coaching others, you often see strong indications that they know these sort of things.(foot#5)
Recognize that training for critical tasks takes students through a series of stages: knowing what they should do, to doing it "feels right", to "feeling natural", to being simply "what is done" (such as a reflex).

Sports are my examples for learning teamwork because they involve an urgency, commitment and emotion, which is known to enhance learning. You don't get the same effect, or number of repetitions, in many other types of games, or in other activities such as collaborating on a homework assignment.

Volleyball is a very interesting example of a game because of how visibly it values teamwork. The most valued skill, and the one most practiced, is not returning the ball over the net for a potential score, but setting up that return. The second-most appreciated is defense: preventing the other team from scoring and returning the initiative to your teammates.

--Email non-collaboration--
The complaints about the virtual meetings conducted by email are almost as strong as those about physical meetings, and many complaints boil down to observations that the sender have no regard for teamwork, although that word itself rarely comes up. The basic complaint is that the sender seems intent of just getting the email out and does nothing to help the audience deal more efficiently with the message. Even a message going to tens, sometimes hundreds, of people. We all know the phenomenon: You get a email where you are unable to tell whether (1) it is an action item for you, (2) it is a request for information from you, (3) a suggestion, or (4) a random, half-baked thought triggered by the topic, but totally irrelevant to the matter at hand. Such people just don't understand that they should be helping people to help them, and what is signaled by their failure to compose a message that is even vaguely competent.

Or the reverse situation where you send a request saying that you urgently need three simple pieces of information and carefully bullet the message to make it trivial to reply, but the recipient answers only one, but seems to genuinely believe that he has been fully cooperative.

There are certain people that send the group an email saying that the attached document has several interesting points, but doesn't bother to say what or where they are. And the attached document can turn out to be a 200-page report that seems to be routine boilerplate. (foot#6)
Such people seem to want to help the group leverage off what they have done, but seem unable to grasp how ineffective they are: because they continue in the same behavior long after the problem has been repeatedly pointed out to them.

--Nevermind ;-) --
In a "winner take all" economy, "teamplayer" is a category of "loser" (although career-advice articles have long warned against being too much of a teamplayer). Around here, you don't even have to go looking to find examples of talking-over-others being cited as crucial for success. Barely implicit in that is suppressing or usurping the contributions of others.

Parents who want to protect their children from growing up to be teamplayers should recognize that it is still important that they learn about teamwork.
1. Teamwork is not an all-or-nothing skill.
2. An understanding of teamwork helps them more quickly spot the degree of cooperation they can expect from those they are assigned to work with.
3. They might wind up in circumstances where teamwork is valued.
4. If they become full-fledged predators, this understanding helps them distinguish the teamplayers who are easily exploited from those that can be dangerous.

The attitudes developed learning teamwork are also highly transferable to seemingly unrelated areas. For example, take the attitude toward the audience in presentations, both written and oral. It is painfully routine to have a presenter who regards himself as the boss or lecturer or whatever, and all that matters is what he wants to tell the audience. Over my years of working with people on their presentations, there have been many who resolutely resisted the concept of considering how to work with the audience to reach their desired goals. An announcement of a webinar on resume writing reminded me of how many resumes I have read where the applicants gave me no help in deciding whether to seriously consider them.

Worse are the sales pitches by companies that tell me little/nothing about why I should bother spending any more time considering whether to buy their product (actually, their disrespect/obliviousness tells me that I shouldn't consider them). Particularly ill-conceived are pitches by startups that appear to be minor variations of what they gave to potential investors (venture capitalists). I have even seen CEOs of such startups give such pitches at conferences to audiences of hundreds of potential customers. I have to suspect that the startup's executives talked-over the underlings who tried to give them good advice. And the executives will likely have gotten rich, and the underlings' stakes in the company likely got diluted into nothingness. Such is Silicon Valley.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Not playing chess: The recent letter by Senate Republicans to the Iranians on the nuclear negotiations is but a recent example of the US political elite, in both parties, unwilling to put in the time to identify even the immediate, predictable consequences of their actions. Reportedly many signers couldn't even be bothered to give token consideration because it might make them late for their plane out of Washington.

2. Expectation about leaders: A while back, I was reading an article of advice on presenting science to a general population, and one section addressed testimony to Congress and similarly bodies. The author admonished the reader not to think of Congresspeople as stupid and ill-informed, telling them that one-third actually are smart (leaving unsaid what the other two-thirds were).

3. "Competition" can be handled many ways. When I was an undergrad at MIT ('73), my roommate's best friend from high school transferred in from Cornell. I was surprised by his comment that he was amazed at how "relaxed" the environment at MIT was. He was a chemistry major and he said that the competition in that portion of Cornell was beyond toxic because of the grading curve. He said that the most important piece of lab equipment was a box to use if you needed to leave your bench?for supplies, bathroom break, whatever?because even a briefly unattended experiment was prone to be sabotaged. I grew up not-that-far from Cornell (in upstate New York terms: less than an hour's drive, second city "over") and heard enough?including its high rate of suicides?to know that it was a university to be avoided.
Note: school suicides is off-topic in this discussion.

4. Belaboring the critique of "the sharp tip of the spear": The absurdity of the conceit behind this metaphor is provided by the history of the spear itself. After the transition from a sharpened stick to a mounted spearhead, the focus of innovation is on the shaft, and how that interacts with how a spear is used by individuals and groups. For example, the military success of the Macedonians under Alexander the Great came from having spears/pikes that were twice the length of their opponents (the Sarissa).
Furthermore, ask yourself which one you would choose if you had to defend yourself: a spearhead or a long "blunt stick"? I would choose the stick: Spearheads are not designed to be held, and you are more likely to wind up cutting yourself than an attacker.
My understanding is that the origins of this analogy are in the military as a morale device for the units that were going to lead an attack and that needed to keep going despite heavy casualties. It gave purpose to their sacrifice, rather than being a declaration of entitlement and superiority.

5. Coaching (an aside): When I was growing up, none of my best coaches were adults, and most of the adult coaches I encountered I would classify as being less than "good".
There is a learning paradigm called "See one; do one; teach one" based upon the observation that the teaching teaches the teacher much that they didn't realize they didn't know, and that you typically don't have mastery of a topic until you can, and have, taught it.

6. Email, a positive example of collaborative behavior: A friend who is a movie buff sent me a link to the article "Why Did This Movie Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Go Straight to VOD?", but telling me that for my interests that I probably wanted to go directly to the summary paragraph: "?It's an incompetent movie. ? a bracing reminder of how much expertise goes into making even the most uninspired movie ? how dozens of people with wildly different skill sets all have to perform well or the whole project is imperiled.?"
Aside: Try to reconcile this with Hollywood being a prominent center of income inequality.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.