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What IT Can Learn from Second Grade Soccer

One of my favorite activities is coaching youth soccer and I have served as a head coach for multiple teams over the last six years.  Currently, I am responsible for a U8 (grade 2) and a U10 (grade 3-4) team.  Recently, while coaching a U8 game, I had a revelation about youth soccer and the lessons that IT can learn from these players.

One of the biggest challenges coaching young soccer athletes is helping them understand the concept of positioning.  The idea is that players should anticipate where the play will go and put themselves in a position to either defend against or support the player with the ball.  This concept is transformational and without it we commonly see a phenomenon which I refer to as “swarming.”  Like a swarm of hungry bees descending on a pot of honey, swarming soccer players fixate on the ball and follow it across the field regardless of location.  Concepts like defense, offense, left or right go out the window as the obsessed players chase the ball.  Swarming is a purely reactive strategy that focuses on getting the ball now and ignores the future. As players progress, they realize that swarming is a poor strategy because it limits other game-winning skills like passing and shooting and misses the larger strategic elements of the game.  IT executives can learn from these youthful soccer players.

As an IT practitioner, you are responsible for a myriad of tasks from basic system maintenance to future architecture design.  With most organizations highly focused on application availability, the easiest and typically most well understood strategy is to focus on operational activities that support current systems. This approach prioritizes today’s problems over future technologies and innovation. Just as a swarmer misses the larger strategic view, a pure IT operational focus misses the greater implications of new technologies or solutions that might solve current problems more effectively.  Furthermore, soccer and IT are similar in that both are in a constant state of flux and so a strategic view is critical in both instances.  In soccer, players must be prepared for the unexpected bounce, pass or shot while in IT, administrators must be prepared for new technologies and solutions that become available and could meaningfully impact their business.

A successful IT practitioner must think beyond a swarming mentality.  There is a time to focus exclusively on operational issues, but a balance between tactical and strategic views is critical for long-term success.  While swarming soccer players can take solace in a post-game popsicle, an IT leader lives in a more unforgiving world where a short-term focus can have a long-term career impact.  As you look to the future, I encourage you to learn from my second grade team and think how you can balance operational and strategy perspectives.

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