How youth sports made me a better startup founder

sports-youth

Photo via Capital East Soccer

A few recent conversations have turned towards youth sports participation and the valuable life lessons they provide.  One in particular stood out to me – youth sports participation is one of the best training grounds for a startup founder.

How would I know?  I was a competitive athlete pretty much since the time I could run, competed up until college and still remain athletic and competitive today.

Although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time, as I was playing youth soccer, basketball and baseball I was adequately preparing myself for a life long battle in the business world.  Learning to cope with immense challenge and competition is paramount to a person’s ability to achieve success.

I am so grateful for the experience and for my parents not forcing me into any specific activity, but rather allowing me to participate in a number of sports so that I could further develop my athletic ability, maximize my leadership skills and mature enough to determine which sport I more fully wanted to pursue.

It turned out it was soccer. It’s crazy to think back and imagine me as an eight-year-old running around in a grassy field on a Saturday morning thinking I’m just having fun — when in actuality I was taking in and absorbing lessons which would help me in my life 20, 30 and 40 years down the line.

Below are just a few ways youth sports help develop a young energetic child into a strong willed startup founder.  (I thank John Cook of GeekWire for the conversation that sparked some these thoughts).

Teamwork

One of the first things you learn as a young athlete is how to play as a team and how to become the best teammate possible.  No soccer team can win with one person trying to play alone – teams must be able to depend on their offensive players, their defensive players and ultimately their goalie to perform to their best ability.  Players must be willing to step up and take the shot, yet at the same time be able to support and assist their other teammates if the organization is going to function properly.  This requires youth to understand which is which, and the appropriate timing of each decision.

Companies are the same way, they aren’t built by one person. Startup teams must be well rounded, supportive and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve success – for all members of the team.  That, or the team won’t exist.

Leadership

Even at the earliest of ages sports teams will vote on a player to become captain, basically naming the leader of the team. I believe this is the single best thing we (should continue to) do for our youth.  Captains are usually the more talented of players, have wide ranging experience and are outgoing and not shy in their ways with others.  But, most importantly, they are willing to take on responsibility.  They must lead the team, delegate when appropriate and stand up for a teammate if something goes wrong.

teamwork-soccer

Photo via Warren Chan

Giving responsibility as early as possible is one of the best ways to develop great leaders.

Imagine the lessons a 10-year-old is learning as he or she lead their team during youth competition. In short, they are the on-field CEO. The success or failure of the team will rest (at least somewhat) on their young shoulders.

I cover startup leadership quite a bit so if you are a regular reader you will know my basic thoughts on the subject.  Simply put, startup CEO’s need to take full responsibility for their organization from day one.  They must wear the captain’s band on their sleeve in plain view so everyone knows where the buck stops.  This is not for their ego; it’s for efficient and effective organizational structure.  Why should an employee ask three people a question when really they should go directly to the decision maker to get the best and quickest response?  If employees in a startup don’t know who the decision maker actually is, that startup ain’t gonna be around very long.

Failing

I get it, losing is not why we play the game.   Go visit a sports park on a weekend and watch how kids react to losing nowadays.  Yet losing in sports – just as in life – happens.  It actually happens a lot.  Learning to fail gracefully is a huge lesson, especially for someone thinking about starting their own company.

Why am I telling you failing is good for children?  Failing, maybe even getting injured  in the process, and then getting back up and trying again shows young athletes that if you do not quit then each new day is a new opportunity to win.  Losing teaches children not everything in life is guaranteed.  In fact, it teaches us more often than not things will not go as originally planned.  Sometimes shit hits the fan and you need to retreat and regroup to determine your next move.  There’s your basic “strategic thinking” lesson in action, a skill founders must employ A LOT.  Losing teaches youth hard work is required to experience success against your competitors.

This is essentially the experience of any early stage founder.  Startups fail most of the time.  Using lessons from our youth we can realize we just need to get back up and try it again, and hopefully we learn something in the process.

Enduring Hard Work

Finally, part of learning from failing is gaining the endurance to last long enough so we can experience success.  I distinctly remember our training sessions during soccer season.  They sucked.  Even if we weren’t going to be the best in the state of Washington we were definitely going to be the most in shape.  Coach made it very clear we would be the team with the best endurance around.

So we ran.  A lot.  We ran until we dropped, and then we ran some more.  We learned to embrace hard work and earn our success.  We learned anything worth winning was worth enduring tough challenges and the hardest of practices.  It was our standard and we embraced it wholeheartedly.  We spoke it.  We lived it.  We practiced it and we played it.  No wonder we won the state championship three out of four years.  It was in our our DNA.

Startup founders need to take ownership of their future.  They simply need to determine where they are going, commit to a standard and uphold it no matter the cost.  They need to bleed confidence to the point where their success is inevitable.

They need to work harder than their competition.  This doesn’t mean work the most hours as humanly possible, that would be as dumb as our soccer coach running us until we all pulled hamstrings, eliminating us from competition completely. Startups must figure out how to work harder, but also work smarter. Determining and following quality performance standards will do wonders to founders and their startup teams.

Youth sports are fun. But they are also incredibly valuable to our society.  If you are a parent, I would encourage you to place your children in a positive environment where they can develop leadership and success skills as early as possible.

Just like you.

Nick Hughes is the CEO of Seconds, a mobile payments startup located in Seattle, and co-founder and host of Founders RAW.  In his spare time he inspires entrepreneurs to build meaningful and enduring companies through his writing on SoEntrepreneurial.com.  Follow him on Twitter@jnickhughes.

Previously on GeekWireWhen your startup feels less like a hockey stick and more like a hip check

  • Wendy Lynne

    Sometimes parents forget that all the reasons you stated in the article are why we encourage our kids to play sports in the first place. They get so wrapped up in winning or getting their kids a college scholarship they forget the importance of life skills like hard work, failing, etc. Great article!

  • Byron

    Very excellent article! Sports are a great vehicle for teaching life and as you said entrepreneurial lessons. Young athletes also learn how to deal with coaches and referees and learn how to deal with a tryout process that may or may not be so fair and open.And as kids play at higher, more copmpetitive levels they will have the experience to meet so many new people who may be their competition one year and their teammate in another. Thanks again for the great article.