Americans fervently believe that playing league sports will help kids become good adults. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that there are lessons to be learned from youth sport, but they’re probably not the lessons that the organisers intended.
There’s a peculiar cultural imperative in the USA that all boys must participate in competitive team sport as children if they’re somehow going to successfully transition to manhood during or after high school. The transformative act of putting on a uniform and exerting oneself in an arena is believed to trigger a glorious apotheosis in a weak, frightened, bored, scrawny or disinterested boy. The fiery invective shouted by a fat, middle-aged coach will magically resonate within the unfinished character of a small boy and straighten out his essential character so that he becomes a ‘proper’ young man, suffused with the virtues of fair play, benevolent aggression and unflinching competitiveness in all things. The inculcated lust for trophies and banners will teach a boy who has better things to do on a Saturday to set aside all of his other worldly concerns in the relentless pursuit of victories out on the pitch. Sport, it is said with quasi-religious fervour, is the only reliable way to turn boys into men. It’s not just a good idea – it’s mandatory.
I’ve heard many well-meaning adults advocating this position over the years. One of one of my favourite justifications is that sport will teach young men the value of teamwork. Supposedly, just being on a team is instructional in and of itself. The boy doesn’t actually need any instruction, or explanation, or any sociological context; he’ll simply absorb the all of the concepts unconsciously and – most importantly – will thereby learn all the right unspoken lessons about operating in groups correctly without ever picking up any of the wrong ones. Because… sport is magic?
That right there is where the Hallowed Sport™ concept collapses, at least for me. Partially, this is because I’m an amateur social scientist; I study how people think and function in groups, and then apply my observations to try to improve real groups in real workplaces. It’s also partially due to my own formative experiences with sport as a wee lad. I definitely learned a lot of valuable lessons about life from sport… and I’m certain that the lessons that I learned were not the lessons that the sport zealots in my life wanted me to learn.
For context, I participated in youth baseball, basketball and football  from ages six-ish to 11-ish. I was a small kid, and was also often a year younger than my grade-level peers. I was also completely disinterested in sport in all of its forms. I suspect that my parents mistook my feigned interest in family sport-watching events for actual interest in a sport itself. I know that my folks believed that group socialization activities would be healthy and productive for young Keil. So, I got signed up for a bunch of youth leagues on the assumption that I wanted to be there. I didn’t, but I went anyway. Along the way, I learned the following valuable life-lessons that still resonate:
You’re expected to know the game before you ever start to play. Every time I showed up to play a new sport, the coach would bellow orders at us and expect every player to have already mastered the fundamentals. There we were, on the first day, being treated like returning veterans rather than clueless neophytes. To be fair, there were a few experienced kids, and those kids always shined – they already knew the sport’s proprietary language, understood the tactics and could handle the ball proficiently. Every player who failed to immediately demonstrate competence was treated with withering contempt by the coach and the experienced players. Rather than being brought up to speed, we all got ignored from there on out. There didn’t seem to be any time for or interest in teaching us; our only job was to fill out the roster. We were there because our parents had paid the league fees. That was it.
Many corporate workgroups function the same way. New employees are hired with an irrational expectation that they’re already 100 per cent proficient in whatever tools, techniques or concepts are related to their position’s generic job description. They’re also expected to somehow know all of the idiosyncratic deviations from industry standards that the workgroup has adopted over the years – the ‘tribal knowledge’ that only an insider could have been exposed to. This causes new team members to be divided up into two groups immediately upon entry: those that are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be fully operational and those that aren’t. The workers that don’t live up to the managers’ arbitrary and capricious expectations are often dismissed, and are sometimes treated with conceit. Instead of being trained and mentored to close any perceived gaps in their skill or experience, they’re relegated to lower-level tasks and are made to feel like valueless outsiders. 
Teams are separated into important and irrelevant members. No matter the sport, it was an undisputed fact that there were only three classes of players on the team: the most important player was the coach’s kid, full stop. Next were the coach’s son’s mates. They got first consideration for all of the important positions and also got the coach’s attention for tactical instruction and skills development. The final group consisted of ‘everyone else’. We were the ash-and-trash; the players that the coach was required by the league to accept (see above). If a player had basic proficiency, size or speed, then he’d get to play most of the game in an unimportant position (more on that next). If a player didn’t have any redeeming virtues, then he’d be rotated in for one quarter so that he could claim that he’d played. He’d spend the rest of his time on the bench.
As an interesting side note, what about those players who have strong natural talent or learned skills who aren’t part of the coach’s son’s clique? If they were good, they get added to the ‘friends’ group immediately. The coach almost always cared more about getting ‘wins’ than anything else (more on that below) so the best player(s) and the coach’s kid would get mentored together… which then changed the social dynamic, since shared experience and exclusive privilege is a great basis for forging new friendships.
Many corporate workgroups function the same way. Managers rack-and-stack their employees based on personal relationships, shared social ties, race, religion or some other arbitrary discriminator. The managers favour their favourites with more personal attention, better work assignments, more access to training, more mentoring, faster responses to voice calls and e-mails, greater leeway in pushing office conduct boundaries, etc.
It’s often glaringly obvious to everyone on the team who the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are. These two groups often grow to resent and dislike one another: the insiders mistakenly believe that everyone is being treated equally; therefore the outsiders’ discontent must be an indication of petty jealousy. The outsiders, in turn, believe that the insiders know that they’re receiving unfair favourable treatment, and treat their denials as smug and condescending. All the while, management remains oblivious to the dysfunctional environment that they’ve created.
Just because you’re necessary doesn’t mean that you’re important.  A baseball team has to field nine players when they’re on the defense phase of the inning. A basketball team fields five players all the time, and a football team has to field between seven and 11. In professional adult leagues and in private competitive ‘club leagues’, every one of those players needs to be highly skilled and motivated in order to be considered competitive. In youth sport leagues, only a small handful of players actually matter; the rest are only on the field to fill lines on the roster (see above). When I played football, for example, only two or three forwards and the goalie ever ‘mattered’ to winning a game. The rest of us were expected to stay out ‘their’ way. Obviously, ‘they’ were the coach’s son and the coach’s son’s mates. I actually played on the same football team two years in a row, and never once received any actual coaching from my coach. I just sucked slightly less than one of the younger boys, so I generally got to play two or three quarters as a token defender.
This practice left us tolerated players mostly on our own to either pick up the rules, tactics, and skills of the game through osmosis, or else be left to rot. This usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: a player who is held in contempt for not being able to play the game well will be routinely neglected, thereby never getting any chance to improve. Meanwhile, the favoured players’ skills and ability will consistently improve thanks to their near-constant access to mentoring and feedback. This uneven allocation of the coach’s attention steadily increasing the skills delta between the ‘good’ players and the ‘poor’ ones.
Many corporate workgroups function the same way. A manager often requires a minimum headcount in order to hold his or her authority level (e.g. needing at least 10 direct reports to qualify as a manager, etc.). Everyone on the team needs and deserves the boss’s investment, but there’s only so much of his or her attention to go around each day. Therefore, the boss only schedules meetings for and tolerates interruptions for his or her most-favoured members, and unconsciously snubs the rest. I’ve seen managers go so far as to rearrange their office space to place all of their most-favoured members next to them, while pushing their unwanted employees out of eye- and ear-shot.
Just as it is in sport, this lack of leadership attention and coaching gradually increases the gap between the ‘high-performing’ and ‘low-performing’ employees. The fellow who’s on the manager’s good side gets access to plum assignments and expensive training, allowing him to win the high-profile deals (in whatever form ‘winning’ takes), which thereby justifies them getting even better assignments and more special training. The team members who were pushed the margins are then judged harshly for having failed to perform ‘on par with’ the favoured sons, even though they were explicitly denied a fair chance to compete.
Winning is all that matters. Despite all of the feel-good rhetoric about sportsmanship, and ‘giving a hundred and ten per cent,’ most of the adults that I encountered in youth sports only seemed to care about their kid becoming a champion. This wasn’t just the coaches’ attitude; the parents who seemed to actually be interested in the games only bothered to encourage the good players and only cheered the game-winning plays. They demonstrated zero interest in acknowledging or cultivating either effort or sportsmanship. Some of them would actually jeer or condemn a player on their own team for having failed to make a play. This, in a youth league made of pre-pubescent children.
There seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between the parents’ understanding of the game and the players’ understanding. Some of the adults’ seemed to be transferring their expectations and desires for the conduct of competitive league sport (like high school, university, and professional leagues) onto small children who were only supposed to be playing the game in order to be more physically active. Well… that, and to have fun. I didn’t find any of it – not the practices, not the games themselves and not the celebrations when the favoured kids won a game – to be fun.
You probably know what’s coming next: many corporate workgroups function the same way.
There’s often a major disconnect between the reasons that adults work for a company and the motivations ascribed to them by their leaders. People who are not independently wealthy usually work in order to survive. Their primary objective is to keep their pay and benefits so that they can keep their family intact. Most workers will agree that they want their company to ‘succeed’ (in whatever form that takes), but they also recognize that their job is only one of several equally-important aspects of their lives. People have to split their limited rations of time and attention between several insatiable consumers, like spouses, children, parents, schools, mates, churches and other commitments. They realize that theycan’t give their maximum effort to their job all of the time; doing so would leave them depleted and unable to serve any of their other constituents at the end of the workday. So, they save their bursts of maximum effort for the times that they believe truly deserve it, and run at a sustainable cruising pace the rest of the time.
By way of comparison, many leaders get over-focused on their organisation’s short-term goals and become enraged when their employees don’t seem to be putting in the ‘heroic’ level of effort required to achieve those goals. I’ve seen adult leaders throw vicious public temper tantrums in front of their employees over their workers’ perceived failures to ‘get motivated’ and to ‘commit’ to accomplishing assigned tasks. In one memorable instance, I watched an executive spend an hour condescendingly berating a workgroup for their supposed lack of commitment. He never acknowledged the fact that his employees’ lack of commitment to his goals was a direct reflection of his own lack of commitment to those same goals: the man was notorious throughout the company for capriciously abandoning his plans and programs, wasting months of time and effort. In such an environment, why would anyone work any harder than they absolutely had to in order to survive? And, yet, the workers were at fault for… doing what he’d ordered them to do. Go figure.
Youth sport experience is, therefore, a pretty accurate predictor of adult working life: a few people are singled out for special treatment and greatness. Most everyone else is contemptuously ignored and then gets punished for things that are largely outside of their control. Success and failure are largely random, and are usually outside of anyone’s control. The people in charge often don’t know what they’re doing, don’t recognize how they’re making things worse, and don’t care about the effect that their decisions have on their exhausted underlings. The best outcome that most everyone can hope for is to just get through the day without being randomly screamed at by an idiot.
This thing is, the modern workplace doesn’t have to be this way! Just because this is common doesn’t mean that it’s freaking mandatory. We already have the skills that we need to create a healthy corporate culture. We have the self-awareness to recognize our own mistakes and counter-productive habits. We recognize – at some level – that we all need one another to make the workgroup function. We therefore realize that we have vested interest in one another’s dignity and personal success. We don’t need anything other than ourselves to break out of this endless squandering of time, effort, money and hope that is the contemporary corporate environment.
One of the ways to break out of this cycle of lightly-starched despair is to disavow the lessons that we all internalized during our years playing youth sports. Leaders need to coach their people, but they sure as heel shouldn’t act like the sort of coaches that I grew up with.
For starters, leaders need to treat everyone on the team like a human being – not as either a winner or a placeholder. Leaders need to address everyone’s professional growth needs – to leverage their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses and cross-level knowledge from those that have it to everyone else that needs it. Leaders needs to articulate clear and practical goals and standards that involve the entire team, and then balance the work to where everyone can contribute meaningfully. Finally, leaders need to abandon forever the notion of indulging favourites on their team – everyone on the team deserves the leader’s attention and investment. Everyone deserves a sporting chance to succeed.
 “Soccer” in American thinking. I thankfully managed to dodge the brain-scrambling and bone-snapping humiliation of American-style football.
 The military generally does a much better job at on-boarding than the private sector does. It’s a point of faith that new squaddies come into the field from the schoolhouse utterly unprepared to do anything useful. A new squaddie’s first few years are spent brining him or her up-to-speed on practical skills and necessary context.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.