October 11, 2020, marked #InternationalDayOfTheGirl and I saw many messages about the correlation between team sports and successful women. 96% of C-suite executive women played team sports growing up and that inspired me to finally write the blog I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Why is it so important to me that I continue to fuel and enable my daughter’s passion for soccer? Because, I have now been in mostly male dominated corporate board rooms for 20 years and the lessons you learn from playing team, competitive sports are as important off the field as they are on the field.
Let me start with some background, I’m part of the 4%. I never played any team, competitive sports. I was always a tomboy but there were certain things that never even crossed my mind, like team sports. I took up dance and gymnastics and was judged on my individual ability to learn the choreography, routine, etc. I was taught to smile, present well, stand tall, be polite. The closest I got to a team sport was when I decided to join track and field in high school. Still, I chose the following 3 categories of competition – the 100-meter dash, the hurdles, and the discus. See a common theme? All of them are individualized forms of competition for the team. I never had to learn what it meant to truly compete as a team.
Fast forward 30 years and I tried to put my daughter in dance, I took her to one class, she cried the entire time and I never took her back. She has been interested in soccer since she could walk and has been playing competitively since we made the decision as parents to support her passion. She played in boys’ teams until recently and has now made the transition to a female, competitive soccer club and team. I enjoyed seeing her play with boys because she learned how to adapt to being the “only” in an all-male environment, something I knew would come in handy one day from firsthand experience. But, here’s why I made that transition a little bit earlier than I needed to from a physical perspective. She’s 11 and just started her first year of middle school. Middle school is proven to be one of the most challenging times for girls in their lives. It’s the time they start to doubt themselves, lose confidence, allow themselves to be interrupted and underestimated. I wanted my daughter to continue learning the infinitely valuable lessons that come with competitive team sports with other likeminded, sports playing, driven girls.
I’ve decided to focus on 5 lessons that translate from team sports to the board room, but there are many more.
Lesson #1 – You need to earn your spot at what you choose to do every day
You need to show up for yourself and for your team every single day. Each team member is assigned a role, a purpose, a job and you need to earn that spot every day. Not showing up and working hard one day doesn’t only impact yourself, it impacts the team. Coaches (aka bosses) rely on you to execute on your function and so do your teammates. As women, we are often overly critical of ourselves thinking we can and must do everything all alone and perfectly. That’s not how life, business, or teams work. Learning that at an early age can save you so much self-punishment and doubt. It’s also important to learn that you can be substituted if you are not showing up one day. Sometimes you just need a few minutes of rest, sometimes it’s an off day or sometimes it’s an injury or medical issue. Whatever, the reason it’s important to learn that you have a team that has your back and is there to support each other. Again, you are not in this alone and more importantly will not win alone.
Lesson #2 – Life is competitive, you need internal and external bars to compete against
It’s always struck me as fascinating that men can be fiercely competitive with each other and still be friendly. Women (not all women, I know I’m speaking in generalizations here) tend to struggle with that. We are taught from a young age that it’s not polite to boast or brag, that we should be humble. Personally, I think all people should be humble (male and female), but I also think that at some point in your career you will have to champion your own accomplishments and compare yourself to others around you for that next promotion, raise, or opportunity. We need to teach our girls that it’s ok to be competitive, that it’s ok to be honest about our abilities, accomplishments, and areas of improvement. It’s also ok to compare ourselves to others as long as it’s in the spirit of doing better and achieving more. You can have your internal and external bar that you need to reach and it doesn’t have to fuel jealousy or conflict.
Lesson #3 – It’s ok to give and receive feedback
One of the things I struggled with as a young manager in my career was giving feedback. I had never been exposed to the example of how to give and receive constructive feedback in a positive way. In a team sport, your children are indoctrinated early with receiving both positive and negative feedback from their coaches. It’s one of the best takeaways I can think of because no matter what you choose to do in life, you will have examples from your coaches to draw upon of how to give and receive both positive and negative feedback. I recently heard my daughter’s coach provide her the following feedback, “Miss Piquion, last game you took too long to show up and express yourself in the box. Next time, don’t wait so long to show us who you are”. She’s 11 and she’s learning to accept that kind of feedback without judgment, in the spirit of being better. It took me over 30 years to get there. Being able to hear feedback, accept it, learn from it, and apply it is a golden opportunity that should not be underestimated.
Lesson #4 – Games are won in the mind, winning is a mindset
One of the most exceptional tasks for young athletes to learn is to perform under stress. The stress of a game is nothing like practice. If you can learn to execute on your game strategy under the intense pressure of highly competitive games, you have learned a life lesson that you will use forever. Life is stressful. I cannot tell you how many times in my career, I had to design “playbooks” to gain market share, integrate companies or teams, execute on a reduction in force or transform our business. I had never used the word playbook in my life let alone designed one, but my male bosses always wanted playbooks (coincidentally only 1 senior leader asked for a recipe and it was a woman). A playbook is just the sports equivalent of a well-engineered strategy. But it’s not until I started following my daughter’s development in team sports that I ever truly understood the importance and meaning of a playbook. It’s amazing to see a game strategy come to life in action, even at a young age. Seeing these young children learn to clear their mind, manage their emotions under stress, and focus on executing that strategy is truly remarkable.
Lesson #5 – Trust is king
Underlying all of the above lessons is the lesson that teams must trust each other to perform. You can’t lead people who don’t trust you and you can’t work to your full potential with people you don’t trust. It’s a proven fact of highly functioning teams. You must trust that others will do their job and focus on your own. You also have to learn to trust yourself, your instincts in the heat of a game, and your decision-making skills without second-guessing yourself. Practicing that at a young age will prepare you for anything in life.
I have no idea if my daughter will still be playing as an adult, so many things can change by then. I do know that the lessons she’s learning today on the field will help her no matter what she chooses to do in life. You don’t have to be a #soccermom but I hope you find a space where your daughter can learn these lessons too.