Football – What did I learn?

I have a habit of asking, ‘So what did I learn?’ with everything that I do or experience. Can’t say that I actually ‘followed’ the World Cup in South Africa, much to the disgust of most of my friends who are keen on football but I still thought I’d share some thoughts on what I learnt, nevertheless. I have used ‘he’ for convenience alone. Please read it as he or she.

I learnt four lessons:

1. Focus on the goal

I remember once while I was in school in grade 6, kicking the ball into our own goal and everyone else remembered that ever since. Redundant though this statement may seem (Focus on the goal? So what else is new eh!) it is surprising how many of us work without any clarity about what the end result should be or what we would like it to be. Just ask how many people have a written down life goal. They may well the desire to achieve something but rare it is that a person actually sits down to visualize what that means and writes it down as a goal. That is why though everyone wants to succeed, not everyone manages to do so. Success has a price and one must be clear about what investment his own goal requires. Without that when we come to the checkout and have to pay for the purchase we realize that we don’t have the money and we have to put the article back on the shelf. I give this analogy because it illustrates what happens in life, all too often only because we are not clear about what exactly we want to achieve and what it will take to do it.

It is essential before we begin any task to be clear about the end result that we want to achieve; what the consequences of our actions are likely to be including the unintended ones and what options we may have other than the course of action that we may have chosen to adopt. The last one is important also because it is natural to like one’s own ideas above others (sometimes to the exclusion of everything else) but this liking can sometimes lead to trouble especially if one ignores contradictory information. Many people are very reluctant to listen to the dissenting opinion and ignore negative data to their own peril. Remember, it is better to listen than to fail.

Focus on the goal is important because it is only scoring the goal that counts. A team can hardly go to the referee and ask to be declared the winners because they tried so hard or because they intended to win or for any other reason. It is the number of goals scored which is the only criterion to decide the winner. All our effort in the end must be judged on the basis of whether or not it helped us to score the goal. If it did, then it was good effort. If not, it failed. Naturally all these efforts have to be within the framework of the Rules of the Game and so our focus on the goal must take into account the rules. I don’t mention the importance of following rules because breaking the rules automatically disqualifies you and throws you out of the game. To follow rules is one of those self evident truths which need no elaboration.

Means are important because without the right means scoring the goal has no value. A win by dishonest means is a loss far more harmful and shameful than merely losing a match. A medal can be bought in a shop but has no value unless it is won in the field as a result of great and honorable effort. So it is not merely the end but the means by which that end is achieved which are both equally important.

2. Develop the skills to win

The second lesson I learnt is the importance of skill; the right skills to play the game so that we can win. Winning is a matter of skill. The achievement of the vision; the scoring of the goal depends not only on trying hard but on having the necessary skills to win. On working smart more than merely working hard. On having a strategy that is superior to that of the opposing team and on talents honed and sharpened with tools to implement that strategy at a level of excellence which will leave the other team standing.

Developing skills is a matter of hard work and discipline because to acquire skills at an expert level is never easy. Developing skills means the hard work to get up every morning to run the laps of the track no matter how tired one may be. It means the discipline of sleeping early so that one is not tired in the morning. It means developing some key attitudes. Curiosity that leads to reading and research to acquire knowledge. Humility that enables us to listen and accept feedback even if that is sometimes painful. Observation so that we can watch what others do and learn from their experience. Structured thinking so that we can extract concepts from all the information that we have collected. Conceptual ability is absolutely critical to learning. What we can’t conceptualize we don’t learn even though we may have lived through the pain of the experience. Raw experience is the material from which learning must be extracted. That process is called conceptualization without which there is no learning. That is why wisdom is not a factor of lifespan but of thought. A person does not have to be old to be wise nor are all old people automatically wise. Reflection, introspection and deductive reasoning are all essential to conceptualization so that learning happens. It is only when a person learns that the experience acquires value. That’s why they say, ‘Experience is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you.’ That’s the differentiator.

3. Learn to cooperate with others

Nobody can score alone. At least not consistently and consistence is the secret of winning. The lesson I learnt from winning teams is that they played as teams; not as groups of skilled individuals each playing his own game. They were a team playing one game, all together. We have abundant evidence from all sorts of games and teams about what happens when there is a team that has not ‘gelled’; has not really become a team except in name. On the other hand a team which does not have so many ‘stars’ but which cooperates and passes the ball to the one positioned the best to score, wins. I am not promoting mediocrity or playing down the importance of great players but merely underlining the fact that without cooperating and playing as one, in the end the team is almost certain to lose the game.

Cooperation is easier said than done, as many of us realize. Cooperation is more a matter of attitude first; in being clear about what each team member can contribute and acknowledging the importance of that contribution and doing everything possible to enable that person to play to his strength. To give a rugby analogy the only result of placing a player who is slim and very fast on his feet, as a center forward is to bring him to a messy ending. A player must be placed and helped to play to his strength so that he can give his best. That sometimes means passing the ball and allowing the other team member to score the goal fully aware of the fact that in the final tally it will be his name and not yours as the one who scored the goal, even though both of you know that he would not have been able to score if you had not passed the ball. What is also true in this scenario is that if you had not passed the ball and tried to score the goal yourself, the team would have lost because you were not in a position to score and would have been stopped by those tracking you. You pass the ball because it is not your win or his, it is the teams’ win.

Cooperation means therefore being more concerned about the team’s win than about your own personal glory. Therefore my definition of a team is, ‘A group of people committed to a common goal who understand how each one is essential for the team to win and where each does all he can to enable the other to play to his strength.’ At the risk of repetition, understanding how each is important and allowing him to play to his strength – this is the meaning of cooperation.

4. Play hard

When all is said and done it is total commitment to the game in the field, giving it your best shot without holding back anything which decides success. The last lesson I learnt is that in the end it is a passionate commitment to do anything it takes that makes the difference. Because passion rarely fails.

The leopard stalks her prey with great cunning and stealth, trying to get as close to the antelope as she can. She is fully conscious of the fact that an antelope is faster than she is and desperate fear for life will add wings to its feet. That is why when she finally launches her charge she puts her complete heart into it. Every muscle explodes with energy, adrenaline flows into her blood, her heart pumps like an engine and in two or three bounds she is on top of the antelope almost before it can even register that its life is about to be extinguished. The leopard in that final rush sees nothing but the antelope. Her whole being is concentrated on the antelope. She is conscious of nothing else. That is what I mean by passion. A complete and exclusive consciousness of the goal combined with demonstrated commitment to do the best that one can possibly do. And that as I mentioned, rarely fails.

Finally the last learning underlying all of the above – don’t forget to have fun. Winning can be consistent only if one is having fun doing it. So enjoy playing, look forward to it, think about it, dream it and play for the joy of it. Happy winning.

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