Anyone who knows me knows I love football. I’ve been a fan of the game since my childhood when the Minnesota Vikings routinely made the playoffs and advanced to the Super Bowl four times (though, sadly, never coming away with a championship).
The first lesson I learned from football was at the tender age of 11. As a rabid young Vikings fan, I watched my team seemingly on the brink of another Super Bowl appearance, leading the Dallas Cowboys with 32 seconds left in the NFC Championship Game of 1975.
Facing the legendary Purple People Eaters defense, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw the ball 45 yards downfield toward receiver Drew Pearson, who clearly illegally pushed off on Vikings defender Nate Wright. No penalty was called on Pearson and the touchdown stood on what was to become the original Hail Mary play.
Devastated, I learned on that play the concept of injustice.
Many years later, I started playing touch football and have been organizing a pickup game that has been going strong every week for nearly 20 years. Over the course of nearly two decades of playing football, the game has taught me several lessons in leadership that I can apply to other aspects of my life, including my work life.
[Tweet “5 #Leadership Lessons Learned From Playing #Football”]
My pickup game attracts an extremely diverse group of guys. Over the years, our group has included:
- People of all races,
- From many states and even countries,
- Blue collar and white collar workers,
- High-school dropouts & those in the education profession,
- High school kids and old guys like me,
- Urban dwellers and suburbanites,
- Republican fundraisers and Democratic activists,
- The devout and atheists,
- Cops and robbers.
Before, between and after our games we chat.
During the course of those conversations, I get a little glimpse of what the lives of people who are different from me are like. I learn about the challenges, the issues, and the problems they face, which are often much different than my own. I learn about issues that it would not have independently occurred to me were issues.
In short, I am much better able to see the world through other people’s eyes, which is an invaluable skill in the workplace, whether dealing with co-workers, customers or clients.
2) Praise vs. Punishment
Several years ago I started playing quarterback to the point now where I’m competent.
They say quarterback is the hardest position in any to play. I believe it.
You need to understand the game comprehensively; from the strategy of the playbook, to the athletic strengths and weaknesses of your own teammates and your opponents, to team dynamics and psychology.
It’s a cliche that quarterbacks get inordinate praise when things go well and inordinate criticism when things fail.
That is true. Quarterback is the ultimate leadership position in sports. Since he handles the ball on every offensive play, since he directs the play of his team, all eyes are on him all the time.
One of the first lessons young quarterbacks need to learn is to suppress their frustrations.
It is all too common for inexperienced quarterbacks to call out their receivers for dropping easy catches. That’s frustration speaking. Young quarterbacks can’t afford too many incompletions because they are not yet talented enough to overcome such setbacks.
What they don’t realize is the effect their criticism has on the very receivers they will need for their success.
Your receiver knows he dropped the ball. Everyone on the field knows he dropped the ball. There is no need to add insult to injury by calling your receiver out for not making the play.
Your job as the leader of your team is to build your teammates up, not crush them down. The most constructive and productive approach is to offer encouragement. Let them know you know they can make that play, that they still have your trust.
It’s a simple lesson but one that’s easy to overlook: Most everyone responds better to praise than to punishment.
3) Let Others Do Your Talking For You
Often, the best choice of a leader is to remain silent and let others speak for you.
Here’s an example from the field. You’ve got a receiver who, play after play after play loudly complains that they were wide open and why are you such an idiot for not throwing them the ball?
Set aside for a moment the fact that most receivers always think they’re open, even if they had a defender squatting directly behind them when they were waiting for a pass or the fact that you had already thrown the ball when they got open.
If you throw a perfectly placed ball to your whining receiver and they drop it, your natural response will be to point out the fact that the guy who is whining about getting the ball just failed to take advantage of the ball that was thrown to him.
Recognize that others will have that same natural response and will likely make those comments on your behalf. Point made and you didn’t have to be the villain.
Leadership lesson: Unreasonable people tend to out themselves for everyone to see.
4) Reading Emotions
Playing football has helped me fine-tune my emotional radar.
In order to be an effective quarterback, you need to be able to read the emotions of both your teammates and your opponents.
If you sense doubt among your teammates, you need to project confidence. If your teammates are uptight during a tense game time situation, it’s your job to crack a smile or joke to diffuse that tension. If an individual teammate is down because of his poor performance, it’s your job as a leader to pick him up.
Leadership in any capacity is as much about reading people and responding appropriately as anything.
5) Picking Teams
You are only as good as the talent that surrounds you.
So picking the right team members will go a long way toward determining whether you win or lose. Team members must be chosen strategically and for specific purposes. Some of the factors I will consider:
If a player is a serial complainer, do their specific set of skills outweigh the bother of having to listen to them or the potential of them poisoning the rest of the team? Conversely, is a player’s positive attitude such an asset to the team that it outweighs his average play?
Addition By Subtraction
I will often choose a player that I know won’t contribute tremendously to my team but will be a huge asset to my opponent. If I have the chance, I will sometimes take a player simply to deny him to the other team.
There are several considerations I have for whether or not a player would be a good fit for my team. First of all, because I am often not the most talented quarterback on the field, I will favor defensive skills over offensive skills.
We will have a better chance of winning by keeping the opponent from scoring than relying on me to score a ton of points. A leader needs to know his own limitations.
Secondly, you can’t choose a player based solely on skill but more on whether or not that skill will translate into productivity in the context of the overall team. I will often pass on taking speedy guys that most people will pounce on. I know that I don’t have a strong enough arm to consistently throw the ball deep enough to take advantage of that particular skill.
I often choose players based on one specific skill they have that I know I will need.
- It might be a receiver who has no fear of battling for the ball.
- It might be a receiver who excels at stretching out to catch the sideline pass, thus extending the field of play.
- It might be a tall guy with long arms who is great at nabbing jump balls in the end zone.
- It might be a guy who is fantastic at anticipating routes and therefore gets a lot of interceptions.
- Or it might be a defender who is so quick from side to side that he can cover half the field as a shut-down safety.
Some of those skills may not apply for much of the game but will prove crucial in important situations.
Knowledge Of The Game
I often say my greatest assets as a football player are that I am old and slow.
It gets a laugh but the point is, people underestimate me. The old part in particular. What I lack in athletic ability, I make up for in knowledge of the game.
It’s no surprise, then, that I favor smarts over skill. I have played with countless guys who are supremely talented athletically but who lack the bigger picture of how plays work.
I have played with countless guys who are supremely talented athletically but who lack the bigger picture of how plays work. These are the guys who lack awareness of where their teammates are on the field, so they will draw defenders into others’ routes.
As a quarterback, I look for players who can read a defense themselves, who see the same openings I do. I want team members who understand the whole picture because they understand how the individual pieces fit together.
Relatedly, I’m more inclined to choose guys with whom I’ve played a great deal. This is because I’ve learned how they play, I know how they’ll react in a given situation, I know how they’ll run their routes or that I can count on them to cover their assignments on defense.
Likewise, I will try and assemble a team of guys who have also played with each other a great deal for the very same reasons.
Judging A Book By Its Cover
Lastly, it is easy to choose or not choose a player because they look or do not look the part.
I’ve chosen too many players because of their chiseled physique–because they look like athletes—only to find they have hands of stone or don’t understand zone defenses.
I’ve also passed on guys who, like me, don’t look like they’ve got game only to find they do.
For these reasons, I will avoid picking new guys if I can. The due diligence for picking them is actually seeing them play a few games.
A lot of what I’ve learned about picking teams can easily be applied to choosing the right team for your project or client.
I could go on and on listing many more lessons I’ve learned from playing football. But I’ll just leave you with proof that I actually do play:
Get The Success @ Creative PR Newsletter
The mission of the Success @ Creative PR newsletter is to help you succeed in your communications career by giving you valuable tips, trends, cool tools, insights and inspiration that will help you throughout your career. Get new marketing stats every week! Click the button below to subscribe: