Alex’s team lost their soccer game again on Sunday, 7-2. That’s a pretty typical score. When he came off the field at the end of the game, red-faced and sweaty, I asked my usual question: “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah!” Big smile.
Alex’s playing has changed over the past few games. He’s decided he’s best at defense and asks the coach to play that position. There’s no more lollygagging around the field. He hustles to get in and make plays. He still needs to work on ball control and endurance… but playing defense on this team means he’s going to get lots of practice. He’s trying to get better.
I’ve never been a “sports person” and I tend to roll my eyes when sports people talk about all of the life lessons they’ve learned from the game. But maybe there’s something to it. I’ve been thinking a lot about something a younger former coworker of mine asked on Facebook recently. He said he wasn’t good at work politics and asked for book recommendations to improve. He said he was disillusioned with the concept of “meritocracy” at work. I didn’t like the jump from “there’s no meritocracy” to “I need to get good at playing politics to get ahead,” but I couldn’t find the words to explain my thinking. It turns out 3rd grade soccer captures my perspective well. Consider this:
If meritocracy exists anywhere, you’d expect to find it in sports. Individual performance is public and easy to measure. But even my limited experience “coaching” youth soccer showed me you look for more in your teammates than just raw ball handling skills. For example, on an earlier team, there was one kid who was great whenever he got his foot on the ball — quick and in-control, he could zoom past the other team’s players. But he was uncoachable. He didn’t listen to what he was supposed to be doing on the field. His contribution to the team fell way short of his raw talent.
Sports isn’t a pure meritocracy… but clearly we shouldn’t react by teaching Little Timmy how to kiss up to the coach to “get ahead.” Youth soccer isn’t about “getting ahead.” It’s about enjoying the game and improving. I view my career the same way. I want to enjoy what I’m doing and I want to keep getting better.
For some people, “winning” (or at least a reasonable shot at “winning”) is an important part of “enjoying the game.” There are youth soccer leagues in Seattle that are way more competitive than the one Alex is in, and I suspect “what do we have to do to win?” permeates the culture of those teams more than Alex’s. The NFL showed us this year that there are leagues where it’s acceptable to push or break the bounds of ethics in the name of winning. But this isn’t an important part of Alex’s personality. And that’s fine! Alex can choose the league to play in. We’ve got a league and team that matches what he values: Having fun and getting better. The same goes with work. There are professions, companies, and industries where politics, backstabbing, and other zero-sum “what do I have to do to get ahead?” questions permeate the culture. But just like a 3rd grader, you can choose which league to play in. If your company doesn’t support you and your values, choose another company.
When it’s my turn to come off the field and meet my maker, I don’t think he’ll ask, “Did you win?” Nope, “Did you have fun?” seems the right question for soccer, your career, and life.