The Game is the Teacher

One of the most significant and important decisions that I’ve made last year was deciding to coach my daughter’s U7/8 recreational soccer team as their head coach.

It’s a co-ed team of 8-10 children and the skill levels vary wildly from those who appear to have just realized that you can, in fact, kick a ball with your feet and those that seem to have been born with a soccer ball attached to their lower appendages.


The “Wolf Pack”

Now, the responsibilities are pretty low-bar as a head coach of a rec soccer team: We practice once a week for an hour and then have games on Saturday. As long as I show up, make at least a half-way decent attempt at creating an inviting environment where soccer balls can be kicked liberally, then I’m essentially doing a “good job”.

But I’ve never been one to go “light” on any project and so in the last 6 months I’ve worked getting licensed so that I can improve my work as a coach. These workshops, seminars, and training have been fundamental to my thinking and I’ve been doubly-blessed because the principles have been able to be applied not just to the soccer pitch for my kids but also into our fast-growing organization here at The Iron Yard for our staff as well as our students.

During my last training workshop my instructor shared a number of pearls but it was this thought that captured my attention:

The game is the teacher.

I could not think of a better philosophy and practice.

Essentially, my instructor was telling us as coaches that the game, itself, will teach passing, shooting, and dribbling excellence. This felt pretty self-evident and intuitive but then the instructor spent time breaking down many of our planned drills and we all realized that we, the coaches, were trying to be the teacher instead of letting the game do the real teaching.

This was the “Aha!” moment for me and I realized that he was right. Previously during soccer practice I would have a master schedule of drills, exercises, and planned activities that heavily relied on my own ability to execute them and lead the children through it rather than letting the game, itself, teach these core fundamentals.

The result? I was short-circuiting the learning process and allowing them to become too dependent the drills rather than the real experience of playing the game. I wasn’t allowing the game to refine and hone their skills.

The same is true in the context of a hyper-growth startup: You must let the “game,” itself, be the teacher. You hire trustworthy and capable people who are hungry and eager to let the game teach them what is necessary to succeed. To be sure, much of this is simply because we don’t have many of the systems in place to begin with.

What does this mean for the new staff member or employee? It means that they must be humble and willing to allow the game to be their teacher. This means that they must be willing to fail, to fall down, and to get up again and to not give up.

They must be willing to try their best and ask for help when they need it. The leaders on the team (i.e. the “coaches”) must simply provide a healthy environment for these things to occur organically and provide the support, encouragement, and course-correction when necessary. The startup experience, itself, is the very best teacher and being willing to live in that ambiguity is paramount.

These characteristics are hard to come by and incredibly hard to screen for when we attempt to find great people to join our team but when we get the feeling that they are flexible, teachable, and willing to get dirty with the game itself, it excites us to no end (and we hire them).

The game is the teacher and we’ve created an environment that promotes this type of thinking and experience. Thankfully, I can now even more intentionally think through the development of our organizational culture after having been coached myself for my soccer licensing.

Let the game be your teacher and find environments and organizations where that is the clear modus operandi – it’s more fun that way too.

[We’re always looking to hire great people who believe in this philosophy and practice. Drop us a line!]

3 thoughts on “The Game is the Teacher

  1. Excellent “aha” moment indeed! My 8-year old daughter plays soccer as well, and what she learns in actual games far exceeds what she learns in practice.


      1. As long as we invite not only the kids playing soccer but our colleagues to learn by failing. I don’t care if you make a mistake, in fact I expect it. But, I hope that the same mistake isn’t made repeatedly. Learn by doing and failing…too many structures don’t allow that which stifles creativity and entrepreneurship.


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About John Saddington

trying to win the internet.