All posts tagged soccer

Lessons In Team Culture From Stanford Men’s Soccer

This post is a part of Startup Edition, an awesome blogger collective.

A team’s culture is an extension of the people on the team.

When Ryan brought up culture as a topic for Startup Edition I initially thought about the culture efforts that I’ve seen in Startupland. There’s a lot of great content out there from the startup community already, though. I’m not sure I have a lot to add, beyond suggesting you be thoughtful about your culture. Spend a bit of time looking at how other’s have crafted their own. I like MOZ’s TAFGEE approach, and Github’s got a pretty interesting lean approach to management. Ev William’s Medium is testing a no-manager approach that probably resonates with a lot of small teams.

I like looking for culture tips where I’ve seen it done well, so in this post I’ll look a one of the non-startup examples I have: my college soccer team.

The times that I’ve seen culture crafted well, both the leadership and role players contributed significantly to the end result. There was a set of principles, attitudes, and beliefs that everyone bought into. There was also always a common goal within the team; a core reason that everyone felt motivated to show up and kick ass.

Stanford Soccer & Culture

As an example, our Stanford Soccer team went from a relative unknown to first-ranked organization in a matter of three seasons. I arrived in year three of that rise. We held a #1 national ranking for about five more years once we’d attained it.

We were a pretty damn good team talented-wise, for sure, but we had less US National Team and big name players on our team than all the other top-ranked schools. We started out as complete underdogs.

What we did have was Bobby Clark, arguably the best soccer coach in the country. He has a system that defines his teams on and off the field.

His attention to detail when it came to our team culture was maniacal. In a good way.

Family First

Our team was a family first. We ate meals together, cleaned up after ourselves, and put our studies and our teammates first.

It was quickly obvious to freshman that they weren’t the only ones who’s joined the team. Their extended family, friends, and roommates were a part of our family, welcomed to the fold and integrated into our mission.

Takeaway: Treat everyone as if they’re part of your team, all the time. Your “team” is bigger than just the people you hire.

Impact Second

Most first-rate people work at things because of the impact they perceive it will have. That impact is different than the goals you set out to achieve. A company might want to IPO or cross $100 million in revenue. That’s impactful, for sure, but impact isn’t binary.

At Stanford, our impact was both interpersonal and as an organization. Bobby made sure we gave back to the community that came out to watch our games; we taught clinics for kids, visited local hospitals, and did charity work.

He made sure that our academics never slipped, no matter how far we travelled or how successful we were in the rankings. We were expected to graduate first, succeed as athletes second.

Takeaway: Your team’s lives aren’t all about work. Make their time with you impactful, even if nobody gets rich.

Impart Discipline

When I talk to friends who played college athletics at other schools, it becomes clear that our discipline was very different. Bobby got a surprisingly high level of buy-in from us. He treated us like adults, but expected us to act like adults.

During our season, we didn’t drink alcohol for 72 hours before a game. That left Sunday and Monday nights to have our fun, which we stuck to religiously. That’s a big ask for college students.

We were always on time, to everything. Weights, light runs, meals, and travel departures were all concrete on every player’s calendar. Standards were high and you didn’t skirt them because your teammates didn’t. Interestingly, it seemed jolting at first, coming from a much looser high school environment; a few weeks into pre-season every guy on the team wouldn’t dream of being late or lax on the structure we’d all agreed to.

Takeaway: Discipline is a product of buy-in. If your team believes in the goals you’re aiming for, and understands the impact they can have, a new level of discipline and dedication is within reach.

Yeah, but building a company is different.

I do think athletics teams and companies are different, but they have a lot in common. In Startupland we ask for a lot of faith from our team members. We shoot for seemingly unattainable goals, and gather small teams together to make sacrifices so that we all might succeed.

Your team’s culture will always be a product of the people you have on your team, but you can learn a lot from any team that’s been successful. Mapping yourself to another team isn’t the answer, so at times it can be helpful to use teams that aren’t much like your own to find inspiration.

This post is part of Startup Edition. If you haven’t, go subscribe for a collection of posts each week from Startupland.


Show Up Attitude

My buddy Jay’s been the talk of Vancouver lately and I sometimes forget that it’s happening, because when we grab lunch or beers we rarely talk about this stuff. We have talked about this stuff, in extreme detail, largely because a lot of the way we’re tight is related to a similar mindset about the world and experiencing it. This is a great interview in which he does a killer job of commenting on how he approaches his life.

For me, its all about the experience. Vancouver presented me with a fantastic experience, a hopeful experience, and thats the reason Im here. When I was making my decision, I was asking: Whats the culture? Whats the atmosphere like? Whats the club like, from the CEO all the way down to the players? Whats the manager like? Whats soccer like in Canada? All these things come into making a serious decision. I easily could have stayed in Europe and made three times the money and sat on a bench in Germany, but why would I want to do that? I dont have a bone in my body that thinks that would make sense. I was presented with a challenge to come in and play a role that I wanted to play. Whats the point of having six or seven years of great experiences and learning so much to not use it? The way Vancouver sold the club to me, sold the role to me, all played a part. I sit here now and I really believe Ive made the right decision.

via Goal! Jay DeMerit goes around the world in 80 ways.

The Game I Care About

I’m a huge soccer fan.

I’m moreso, admittedly, every four years when the Cup rolls around.

In between I have a hard time following leagues that aren’t on the continent I live on, and as such can’t claim to be a rabid supporter year round.

I kind of can’t think of much else during the Cup though; I feel a nested responsibility to witness the 20 or so World Cups that will occur during my lifetime (assuming I make it that long, obviously).  There simply isn’t another sporting event that comes even close to being what I want out of a sporting event.

Soccer’s a game that people have a hard time with, especially in America.

Okay, only in America.

Everyone else seems to get it.

Anyway, I don’t have a problem with that.  I kind of loved being a soccer player because it was like being in on something that everyone else might eventually realize.  Growing up the football team and the basketball team competed over who was cooler.  The baseball team just loved themselves enough for all of us.

The soccer guys didn’t really care; in the Midwest you’re in the world that got soccer last.  They grew up on baseball.  They go nuts for college football.

Then every four years the World Cup happened and everyone talked about soccer for four weeks.  It even rolled through the US and everyone wondered if the sport would take over.

At which point the professional league in this country expanded enough to nearly kill itself.

Because I was playing, I saw what everyone around the world sees when they live and breath and dream soccer year in a year out.

A game anyone could play.  A game happening in ghettos in Brazil with bare feet and balls of cloth, which fueled one of the most beautiful versions of the game ever known.

A game so demanding of body and mind that a goal matter enough to be remembered forever.


A game that’s spawned war and stopped wars.  A game that entertains and influences…draws loyalty lines and brings enemies across them.

A legion of support that so rarely happens in other sports; something so far from entertainment that you almost wouldn’t recognize it as even fun.  Support for corners of the soccer world looks more a lifestyle than anything else.

And  then you get the World Cup; the largest athletic stage this planet has ever known.

Everything truly beautiful, ugly, friendly and hateful about a game I consider at its core to be the closest competition gets to illustrating humanity.

Today was one of those days that makes the three and half years I spend waiting for the next World Cup worth it.

A 12 Yard Shot

I was cleaning my apartment today and I found my journal (the old kind that requires a pen) which I kept while I was traveling with the US National team and sporadically thereafter. I poked through it and found this entry.  I’ll post a few more in the near future.

I wrote this a few hours after a triple overtime playoff match with our biggest college soccer rivals. Our two teams were among the top five in the country at the time, and had the misfortune of meeting early in the NCAA Tournament, on our home field at Stanford. The match went tied through all the overtimes, in one of the worst downpours I ever played in; it was a total mess. The thousands of fans who showed up toughed out the horrible weather and three hours of soccer to watch it settled via penalty kicks. After five penalty kicks, we were stilled tied. We entered the sixth round, head-to-head rules meaning a made shot matched against a missed shot would end the game.

I was the our sixth shooter. My opponent made his shot, and I didn’t.

November 18, 1999

Until early November of the year 2000, I hope I never forget how tonight felt.

To watch every dream you had for a season, all your goals, slip away on a missed penalty kick.

To look into the senior’s eyes, Coach’s eyes, and the eyes of everyone else that put four years of hard work into being the best team in the entire country.

I worked my goddamn ass off for a year and it all ended in a rainstorm and mudbowl and a twelve year shot.  I am completely crushed, disappointed, and demoralized.  It just f*cking sucks.

I hate hearing everything that I would be telling someone else in my situation…

I know it all, and it sounds great as it’s being said but my goddamn heart is in the next f*cking round of that soccer tournament.  It might still be laying on the field next to the penalty spot at the north end of the field waiting for another chance to take that shot.

I’m so numb I don’t really have any idea.

And I know I can work harder that I have, be twice the player I am today…so why the f*ck aren’t I?  Why am I here and success is somewhere else?  I feel like a crock…a f*cking lie.  I’m left with nothing from this year’s season to prove otherwise.

This better be enough to put my ass in the game like it should be.

I put a huge effort into tonight and came up short.  End of story.

I am never going to say that again if it kills me.  Not winning hurts a lot worse than whatever I have to do to win.


Photo by Pink Sherbet.

Shaving Revisited

If you’re not familiar with shaving your face, which I’d expect some of you may not be, let me tell you that it’s one of the most tedious aspects of being a man.

I realize that might come very close to stating that life as a male is pretty easy, but let’s not forget that we do have to navigate the intricacies of you women once we’re done shortening the hair on our chinny chin chin.  We still have to figure out what it is you want to hear when you ask us questions we think we know the answer to.

That being said, shaving is a pain in the butt, but in college I was lucky enough to get a free Gillette Mach 3 Razor and the course of my shaving woes was forever changed.

I think Gillette (warning: do not click that link unless you LOVE Flash) may have given every single adolescent male a free Mach 3 Razor ten years ago because they knew that these things were the crack cocaine of shaving.  I mean, one day your sliding a disposable razor across your chin and then next day you’re wiping the hair off your face with a soft laundered cloth that happens to have three razors built into it.  Gillette probably doesn’t want you to know this, but you didn’t even need shaving cream anymore.

The thing was perfect.  I think you could actually ask your facial hair to go away if you owned one.

Now granted, for the next ten years I was begrudgingly buying replacement blades which cost more than the outfit I’d put on after shaving, but that razor lasted me ten years, no joke.  It lasted four dob kits (where does that word come from, anyway?) and five residences.  Every girl I have kissed since freshman year in college reaped the benefit of that razor.

Until it disappeared on me about two months ago and I went through the same thing I went though when I stopped playing competitive soccer and my cleats wore out.  The Do Not Replace Syndrome that’s founded in something you’ve taken for granted for longer than you can remember.  Do people BUY razors these days?  Once free, always free, no?

And please don’t tell me people are falling for the FUSIONFive blades is totally ridiculous.

So here I am, pushing thirty years old and in an all out battle with facial hair without a suitable weapon.  I am not joking when I tell you that I was commuting home today on a bus, thinking that although I really haven’t blatantly asked for anything from the Gods of Blog, and I really haven’t received anything in return (besides some effing awesome new friends, sidenote), if they gave me one wish I think I might wish for a Mach 3 Razor.

At which point I realized that my aspirations could probably be raised.

Another Forever Thing

We all wandered into the common area with smooth pine booths along each wall and the standard college-issue knee-high “coffee” tables scattered about, where most of the upperclassmen already had their preferred beverages piled up in shopping bags next to mixers.

The benches were full, and they were full of upperclassmen we’d all met just a few days earlier and still could barely breath around.  We’d had a short week’s worth of soccer practice with these young adults who played a game we’d all considered ourselves pretty darn decent at and they played it like real athletes.  They stepped past us like we were children.

College was a totally different ballgame, and five days on the soccer pitch was plenty to drive that home.

Now they were marching us into a room packed with not only our team, but the women’s team as well.  The cat calls.  The jokes about the suits they’d made us wear for our Introduction Event.

We still didn’t even know each other all that well, and I remember TJamas, with his spiky California blond hair and his killer blue suit shirt yellow tie combination and I remember thinking man I am such a loser.

That kid would become my roommate, confidante, and best friend in quick time, and that night in front of hot older female soccer studs, heckling male soccer gods, and his fellow freshmen, that kid volunteered to go first.  He hopped up on the table and took the pressure off the rest of us.

That kid also asked a wonderful young lady from northern California to to marry him about two weeks ago.

A young lady who’s tall and slender and gorgeous and spunky and compliments TJ’s sense of adventure and energy.

Another athlete with a perfect smile.

A young lady I can tell digs him right.  Stares right into his good nature.

I want to congratulate the both of them and wish them a long and happy life together.

Them’s going to be some damn near perfect kids.

Photo by laszlo-photo.

You Know Things

I had an interesting conversation this weekend with someone who didn’t know that I blog.*

I also had an interesting conversation with someone who didn’t know that I played soccer.

Conversations can get pretty quirky when you’re talking with someone, they take the authoritative position on a subject right away and you let them do so. You position yourself at the quieter end of the chat and let your partner take the reins and all of a sudden you realize that you have a phenomenal indication of what someone knows or how much experience they have or, in some cases, how highly they consider their own opinion.

And I don’t mean to undermine the conversations I had this weekend. Neither was awfully ‘arrogant’ or anything along those particular lines, but when I am ‘assumed’ to have a certain level of understanding on a particular subject without any evidence to support the theory, I not only wonder what lead to the assumption (usually I think it has more to do with the assumptor, but who knows) but I know right away that I’m in the middle of one of those conversations.

As for the subjects, blogging and soccer are quite different.  Soccer is a game, it’s a spectator sport, and thus it’s a relatively passionate subject.  People have opinions, a many have experience with the game.  There might even be some correct opinions out there, but we all know what it’s like to talk about sports or watch people talk about sports and while here and there someone might think they’re right (Cubs fans?) the mere fact that people are willing to posit an argument against the idea that Tiger or Michael Jordan is/was/will be the greatest player to have lived means the topic has a lot of speculation going on.

I don’t often argue with anyone about soccer.  I have a long history with the game and a lot of it’s current players, so I just squirm in my frustrations as I watch the misteps in this country as they relate to the sport.  Half the time I ignore soccer…I don’t follow European games like I used to, and only recently as we gear up for the World Cup do I find myself paying attention here in America.

I mean, as you all know, I really don’t write about soccer a whole lot.

Blogging, though, is not a sport.  (Okay, for some it might be, but I’d like them to explain how.)

From where I’m standing, I’d position blogging as an activity that anyone can do, and everyone should do.  It’s a communicative extension, and there’s no right way to do it, and there are ways to do it that will get you more attention than others.  Writing, dancing, singing, speaking…all the same thing.

When blogging comes up in a conversation, it tends to be a uniquely personal conversation.  Aside from the “what is blogging?” or “how?” or “why?” conversations, a real life chat about blogging is usually a reflection of how two people approach the activity.  That has a lot to do with who they are.  Their influences.

It’s an intimate thing.

Which is why I think it strikes me when subjects like these are commandeered in a conversation between folks who don’t know one another well.   I don’t know…maybe it’s just that these two topics kind of resonate with me personally.  Maybe I hope that I’m being conscious of how I might assume that I’m the expert in a conversation, or maybe I notice it because I’m very sensitive to the idea of being perceived as intellectually arrogant.  There’s nothing wrong with thought and intellectualism and all of that…I adore it and I adore conversation as a result…but assumption and arrogance make an enemy of the fun, mutual, inquisitive conversation that I find the most worthwhile.

We all know things.  Finding out what you know is the fun of it.

So what do you know?

*This may be obvious, but this conversation is obviously not a conversation I had at the blogger/tweeup on Saturday.  That was a ton of fun and you are all wonderful people.

Soccer Revisited

I was a decent soccer player.

I got the nickname Freshman Sensation in highschool because I think the girl who gave it to me wanted to kiss.  She called me FS.  No else really did. 

I’m glad Putterass stuck.

Highschool was a playground for my and our team…a time of becoming soccer dudes. It was when we all decided which sports fit us best; we gave up on being four sport athletes and we all kind of fell into line with the flow of things, and my flow was always gonna be soccer.  I nearly went to Europe instead of going to college.

Ah, how decisions define us.

College was a wake-up call.  I was in the ocean, out of the fishbowl, and the second my new teammates got wind of my hometown stature they let me have it.  I came into the locker room one day and found an article about me taped to my locker, written by some nice old suburban ‘sports writer’ who claimed I was ‘something special’.  As holiday break neared our stud forward, CW, kept asking me when the homecoming parade would be.

That doesn’t even begin to describe the new game I found myself playing.  It wasn’t just about impressing your parents anymore, or being popular in your highschool…this game was the real game.  This game was all out war, and it was a lifestyle.  You ate right, you slept right, and you played hard each and every time you stepped on a field or you didn’t get to play, period.

I went to Stanford  and joined a program that was finally seeing some success after a pretty ‘off the map’ string of up and down seasons.  The veterans I joined, obviously an incredibly humorous group of kids, were downright determined to bring the program to the next level.  Our coach was and still remains a genius.  I had no idea, at first, what it was I’d gotten in to.

As the season wore on, I got my legs and fitness under me, and I ended up playing in nearly every game.  For a lot of people where I grew up, a statement like that would have surprised them; I was a starter and I was the starter back in the burbs.

We fought our way through a top notch season, and made the tournament easily.  We had momentum, we were scrappy, and we outworked everyone.  It was already so much more than I’d ever expected when I decided to go to a school I’d only seen once, and kind of thought I might hate.  

This was the beautiful game.  This was what the beautiful game felt like.

And it kept on.  We won two tournament games on the west coast, and were sent into the toughest place in the nation to play a perennial powerhouse; for any casual soccer fan the game was a write off.  University of Virginia was where college soccer at the time was being written.  They’d never given up more than two goals at home.  

So we beat them 3-0 nothing.

And found ourselves in the Final Four, on ESPN, and on the proverbial map.

This weekend I’m headed to Stanford to reunite with the 1998 Stanford Men’s Soccer team.  

This is a group of men that turned water into wine and did it purely through hard work.  A group of men who turned me into a real soccer player, a future Captain who saw two Final Fours and four dominant seasons.  

A group of men who, against all odds and all expectations won their Final Four semi-final before falling to the hands of this country’s oldest soccer powerhouse, Indiana University.

And yes, we’d like a rematch.

(sporting fall)

now the romance with fall begins and so far we’re still in that make-out stage where we can’t be in the same room together and just decide not to get naughty. we can’t just say let’s watch tv tonight.

of course that’ll pass because that romance is a turbulent one.

i wore a sweater today.

i look pretty good in sweaters, according to branner, but i can tell you that i’m going to put sweaters on in february and curse the world and the maker and chicago especially.

right now you can’t hate chicago because not only is fall still sexy but it’s october and both of our baseball teams are still suiting up. if you were roughly 6 to 8 years old in 1906 you might consider this a ‘been there, seen that’ kinda moment.

the rest of us are pretty pumped. even those of us (gasp!) who really aren’t baseball fans.

us non-baseball fans are still pretty surprised the bears can beat the colts and eagles.

i’m headed to south bend this weekend.

a place i consider to be the devil’s den. ha…that’s ironic. but i do hate south bend.

stanford comes to town to put the stink on notre dame, and thanks to my former soccer coach and my swimmer cousin i’ve got four free tickets to the game.

and there, my friends, is one of the most-unplanned sports posts i’ve ever written.

(soccer game tonight)

i was just offered a free owner’s box ticket to the USA v Trinidad world cup qualifier tonight, which is where i’m happy to be in lieu of actually being on the field.

if you haven’t been to toyota park to see our local MLS team play, or for an event like this evenings, i highly recommend it. we’re one of only a few american cities with a dedicated soccer stadium, and you’ll know what i mean by that before the game even starts.

the atmosphere is amplified by the stadium’s size, and even more so by all the die-hard soccer fans that call this city their home.

check out my twitter stream later for live updates from the vip seats!