The 2014 World Cup became one of the most memorable events of the year with its high and low notes. The victories and defeats taught us a lesson or two in developing and managing teams. In Soccer, like in any team sport, the challenge is to bring out the best in each player to secure a victory. Functional teams manage to accomplish this with or without star performers.
There is an “I” in team! Let’s bust the myth that there is no “I” in team. If your team members don’t strive for success, it’s only an average team that can just achieve average results. If you want a winner team, you have to unleash the beast in the individual. The German victory at the 2014 World Cup illustrates how shifting your focus to the individual can lead to precision and stellar performance of the team. Even though Germany’s accomplishment prompted a wide acceptance of the strength of the team, much of the collective triumph is attributable to the individual players. One of the architects of the success is the team’s trainer, Mark Verstegen who transformed the team’s very general physical training to be more focused and individualized. By strengthening each individual, you improve the performance of the team. Verstegen’s approach echoes Peter Drucker’s prescription for enabling joint performance of individuals with different skills and knowledge by infusing a “commitment to common goals and shared values.”
Change your course. Bringing Verstegen aboard was one of the drastic moves the former German coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, now coaching the U.S. team, brought about to help the team regain its stature. Klinsmann also recruited younger players in favor of the older and more experienced ones, much to the disappointment of the fans. The shift of emphasis on youth and speed, along with better physical fitness and mental energy, has armed the team for better performance under pressure.
In addition to the organizational overhaul, the team exhibits an openness to making deviations from plans in crucial moments. To defeat climatic conditions in Brazil, Germany decided to play with four interior defenders in a line while moving Philipp Lahm, perhaps the best right-back in the world, into the defensive midfield. German coach Jogi Löw, Klinsmann’s assistant during his tenure, changed the course for the match against France, moving Lahm back to right-back where he remained for the rest of the event. Again, the approach reflects Drucker’s emphasis on management’s role in fostering learning and adaptation.
Build resilience. Resilience has become the buzzword of our time. From cities to microbes, resiliency is the key to return to glory. Defeat, whether in the form of an injury or loss, is not a deterrent in the athletic realm. Peyton Manning, after his two neck surgeries and missing an entire season, instead of retiring from professional football, managed to win the AFC West division title for the Broncos.
Resilience is not just rising from the ashes like a phoenix after an injury or defeat. It is also the ability to reverse the course of events under the pressures of time. During the 2014 World Cup, there were over 20 goals in the last 10 minutes of the regular game and over 20 in extra time. In fact, since 1930 the third highest number of goals was shot in minutes 80 and 89. This ability to pull through at the last minute to win the game, also referred to as being clutch, is coined by some of all-time favorite athletes. LeBron James, for example, is perhaps the number one clutch player of the 2013-2014 NBA season with the highest percentage of shots in the last 24 seconds.
Expect the unexpected. I learned early in my career that no matter how well you plan for an event, you have to be ready to deal with the unexpected. In 15 minutes of trying to move a session from an overbooked venue, I learned more than the whole nine months of planning the event.
Athletes spend hours and hours through often grueling drills to prepare for the competition. Despite being well prepared for the event, an unforeseen element can bring a win or loss. Michael Phelps did not expect a goggle malfunction obstructing his vision during an Olympic event. Lindsey Vonn was prepared to reclaim her title at the Sochi Olympics, but her knee gave out at Val d’Isere a few weeks prior to the Winter Games, eventually leading to her decision not to compete.
From Brazil’s first defeat on home soil since the 1975 Cope America, to John Brooks’ header in minute 86 in the US game against Ghana; from Luis Suàrez biting the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini to Mexican goalie Memo Ochoa saving six shots at nearly point blank in the game against Brazil, there were numerous unexpected moments at the 2014 World Cup. Even hours of technical and tactical training can’t prepare you enough for moments like this. It is mental strength and preparedness that allows you to overcome the element of surprise to proceed with your mission.
Verstegen may have the perfect recipe for a world class team. Correct things right away. As he told Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times, “[i]t’s like an antivirus program on a computer. You want to get rid of the junk and keep the movements precise.”