Transferring Practice to Game Day

Many years ago I played on a soccer team. And, I clearly remember practicing everything – passing, shooting, trapping, head balls, defending, you name it. In fact we would spend quite a bit of time at practice working on skills and hopefully building muscle memory. I also remember something else – that has stayed with me the rest of my life. It seemed that I was much better at all of those skills in practice, than in the heat of the game when opponents were kicking at my ankles, grabbing and holding, and not so gently ramming me off the ball. It wasn’t that panic set in. It was just that everything was moving so fast and in so many different directions, I reverted back to doing whatever I could to play the ball in a way that would help us win. Unfortunately on some occasions, you might have wondered if I had ever been anywhere near a soccer pitch in my life. Based on my “variable” ball control skills, I would often look more like a clunky bulldozer, than any kind of “trained athlete.”

Interestingly enough, I see much of the same, with developing leaders in organizations everyday. Here is what I mean.

There are many people devoted to improving themselves as leaders. They study up on various leadership practices and behaviors. They develop strategies and action plans to begin demonstrating the desired behaviors more frequently. They may even go as far as to schedule development activities on the calendar, and then set up accountability systems to make sure they follow through. Most even make some progress. Metaphorically, they never miss a practice, and work hard on improving their skills.

Then comes game day. In the heat and tension of the daily crisis or big challenge – when pressure mounts and poor results have real consequences – these leaders again become those poor listening, order-giving “dominating personalities.” Colleagues around them wonder if they have any clue at all about leadership.  No matter how much work they have done “at practice,” they have clearly not figured out how to transfer their improvments, into the game. Sound familiar?

After a time, these leaders in progress often question why they should continue going to practice, since it does not seem to make much difference in performance. So they lose interest in pursuing their leadership development, and start focusing again on simply bulldozing people to get the work done. Only randomly, might they take a step or two to improve themselves, and hope the outcome is different next time.

There are a couple of comments I offer for you to think about. First, you are employed and paid, based on meeting real expectations, solving problems and helping your organization become more successful. This is the part of your work that is your game day, when you have to get on the field and perform at your best.  As comfortable and proficient as you may be honing your blossoming skills in practice, you have got to bring them into the game. It doesn’t really matter how many action items you check off your list, you are not improving until you are applying those skills more effectively in your visible leadership roles. There are too many people who tout their alleged growth as a leader, by citing the large  number of improvement steps they have fulfilled. Growth here is mostly an illusion, when nothing changes in their day to day behavior.  You are paid for your performance in the game,  not just on the practice field.

My next comment is to remember what the end game is. It is for you to become a better leader for those around you, in order to help them collectively achieve greater success. Leadership, your leadership, is important. It does make a difference. And, there are many in situations where there is a vacuum of good leadership.  They truly need it and are counting on you to provide it. You must continue to get better and not let them down. Never, ever forget the end game.

Keep in mind that game day is always different than practice. You have to be willing to test and apply those skills you have been practicing, in real time in the real world.  It is during the “game” that heroes are made and stars are born. It is also the time when any miscue you make is visible to everyone. Just remember that every superstar blunders, and often on a semi-regular basis. They just keep going back to practice, and approaching every new day as a great opportunity to use their capabilities more effectively than yesterday.

I hope you will approach your leadership growth in the same fashion. Continue to work on new skills and most importantly, courageously bring them into your daily challenges. Don’t worry if you stumble, you will. You may overact and yell, ignore good ideas, or impatiently snub others. Translation, you will frequently misplay the ball. Learning is never flawless and seldom comfortable. Just remain committed to continuing to work at it. You will one day find, that you are a lot better “controlling the ball” as a leader, than you ever thought possible.

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