Software Leadership Lessons from Youth Sports

My two boys—ages 13 and 10 at the time of this writing—got involved in sports as soon as they were old enough to join a local soccer league (4 years old). Since both boys also displayed an intense interest in baseball, we signed them up for that as well when the time came.

I’m not the sort of person who typically sits quietly on the sidelines, so I (at times) found myself involved in these teams, usually as a coach but at one point as president of my local Little League. Here are a few things that these experiences have taught me.

1. Talent Development is Key to the Long-term Health of an Organization

If you’re involved in youth sports, it won’t take long before you start to realize that winning is really important to coaches. After all, a win-loss record is the most easily accessible measurement of a coaches’ success. The problem, however, is that for a team to continue winning, all players need to be developed.  Otherwise, players on other teams will develop to the point where they can completely negate the affect of what is now your star player.

This holds true for designers and developers as well. You never know when a particular skill will be in short supply, so starting to develop that skill early protects you against long-term risks. You, of course, could look for that skill outside of your organization, but then you’re competing against a lot of other organizations for a person you don’t really know.

2. Goals Need to be Well Defined, Clearly Communicated, and Attainable

Most youth sports teams don’t have clearly defined goals outside of winning. The parents will probably have some nebulously defined goals that are more focused on their children such as “get a lot of hits,” “make some great plays,” etc. However, if you ask the children what their goals are, they may respond with “hit a homerun” or “pitch.” This mismatch in goals is not always a problem, but it can lead to parents and players feeling disenfranchised. For players, this can manifest itself in sulking on the sidelines or in the dugout.

One of the easiest ways to combat these problems is to set realistic goals early and make sure everyone on your team is aware of them and understands their role in seeing them fulfilled. To be clear, valid roles don’t include sitting on the bench or picking dandelions in right field. Everyone must have an active role in seeing the greater goal fulfilled. The end result is a stronger, more determined team that may not only reach their stated goals, but may stretch beyond them as well.

So it goes for teams of Makers. Setting goals and having everyone participate in reaching those goals makes for a stronger, more robust team.

3. Tactics Matter

Several years ago, I was the assistant on my youngest son’s baseball team. After the game, the coaches were talking when our starting pitcher approached. The opposing coach mentioned to our pitcher that if he altered his technique, he might throw more strikes. This extra bit of helpful advice drew his attention away from what we wanted him to focus on, causing him problems we had to later correct. It’s not that the advice was bad, it simply wasn’t what he needed at the time.

Even when everyone is clear on what the goal is, it’s important that everyone agrees on the path for getting there. For instance, at Atomic Object, we agree on testing, project management, and design practices.