Innovation from a football coach

My son, Juan joined the school football (soccer) team this year.  He’s eight years old and from South America but he’s no Lionel Messi . His coach had what I thought was an unusual approach to teaching the team which has implications for those chasing innovation.  

Juan’s coach focused on the skills of controlling the ball.  He didn’t focus on passing the ball, he didn’t practice shooting for goal and he wasn’t interesting in winning the game. His sole focus was on teaching his team to control the ball and try to beat their opponents one-on-one.

At the end of the game Coach would celebrate the players that tried to beat others players by keeping the ball and running with it. He didn’t care if they failed and lost and ball, he cared that they tried.  He knew that kicking the ball was the easiest thing to do, trying to keep the ball and control it yourself was by far the hardest and most likely to fail.

As a result of this I saw kids who had few skills and little confidence progress dramatically.  They tried, failed frequently and lost more than they won. During coach’s end of season speech he talked about when individuals took on their opponents, how they improved in their ball control skills and when they fought their way through.  He didn’t mention one goal scored and didn’t mention winning or losing.

Juan’s soccer coach was clever.  He knew that kids learn through building self-confidence in an environment that encouraged them to try and experiment with no repercussions for failure. They failed frequently and all attempts were applauded.

So what can we learn about innovation from Juan’s Under-9’s football coach?

  1. Encourage trial without fear of failure and you will build learning confidence and encourage innovative play
  2. Focusing on the behaviour that leads to the end.  Less than 1% of a soccer game is kicking for goals, the rest of the game is trying new ways to break your opponents defence. Focusing on building an innovative culture is more important than focusing on the innovation.
  3. Recognise that performance indicators for innovation are the unrelenting attempts at something new, not the success of the attempts.

A focus on achieving a positive outcome quickly puts pressure on people to succeed. The pressure directs attention to things that will succeed (kick the ball) and not to things that may fail (control the ball). Most innovation is non-linear, it’s not obvious what will work and requires learning and adaptation to succeed. A focus on learning through experimentation is the critical component, it is the essence of innovation.

If you follow the Eric Reis (the Lean Startup) approach to innovation by rapid prototyping using a minimum viable product (MVP) approach, you’re essentially following a learning or experimentation pathway.

Great innovation comes from solving problems that we cannot currently solve. At its core, innovation is experimentation. The desired behaviour is insight driven trial and error and constant learning, the outcome is innovation.

If you look back an any innovator or entrepreneur before they had their moment in the sun, before they were labelled a success, they were an experimenteur.  They were already succeeding, not in the outcome but the process.

What are you doing to encourage an innovative culture? Our coaching and mentoring services can help get you and your team up to speed quickly. Take charge now!  Call +61 447 66 66 91 now or email or visit for more insights.



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