Sunday, March 05, 2023

Philadelphia Union's Jim Curtin is Wrong About Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso is a fictious coach for a fictitious 2nd division English football (soccer) league. So why was the reigning U.S. soccer league (Major League Soccer-MLS) coach of the year dissing on him?

Jim Curtin is a candidate for the U.S. men's national soccer team (USMNT). And he was asked about Lasso in an interview. The context was that U.S. coaches are challenged to land coaching jobs in the most competitive leagues in the world. Jesse Marsch, probably the American (from Wisconsin) that has succeeded most, just got sacked by Leeds United of the topflight English Premier League (EPL). Does the fictitious Ted Lasso promote the stereotype that U.S. coaches are somehow inferior to British, German, or French coaches?

In my opinion, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the show and fictitious coach, played by Jason Sudeikis. It is not making fun of American coaches, or Ted Lasso. Just the opposite. It is making fun of soccer elitism and the world's resistance to the U.S. elevating its game, standing, players and coaches in a world dominated by other countries. In soccer, the world does not want us to succeed. It's their sport. 

For background, Lasso was recruited by AFC Richmond (fictitious club) by an owner that was going through a divorce and the wife hired Ted to tank the team because she despised her husband so much. Ted was an ex-college football (US football) coach.

Lasso came from Kansas. And in the show, has a thick accent, 70s moustache, and is armed with an endless supply of homespun anecdotes. He knows little of soccer. In fact, the show is based on a commercial done by Sudeikis years ago to promote EPL games in the United States. In that commercial, Lasso knew very little about soccer, embraced a disparaging nickname, and played the fool. Watch the video to get the picture if you're not familiar with it.

That is the premise of the show. And if that is as far as you got, you understand Curtin's comments.

But there's more. Much more. I'm not here to tell you that Lasso's coaching style is correct compared to other coaching styles. But I am here to tell you that a primary job of a coach is to maximize the talents of those under their charge. Not only so they play well but also play well as a team.

Notice I did not say the primary job of a coach is to have extensive tactical experience at the sport they are coaching. In fact, many great coaches rely on the tactical knowledge of assistants. Was Phil Jackson (Chicago Bulls) a great tactician, or did he make superstars play well together?

Notice I did not say the primary job of a coach is to have a great resume or played the game at the highest levels. Bill Belichick (New England Patriots) played center for the unheralded Wesleyan University. He was captain of the lacrosse team.

Here are the traits that make Ted Lasso a case study in leadership.

Surround yourself with leaders that complement you. Lasso's first assistant coach appointment was his friend and fellow football coach (Beard) because he knew that Beard would tell him the truth, whether he liked it or not. Beard also kept discipline in practice. His next appointment was the equipment manager (Nate) because Lasso realized that Nate had superior tactical knowledge of the game. His final appointment was a newly retired player (Roy Kent) giving the staff the credibility they needed with the players and its fans. 

Have humility. Lasso did not present himself as a soccer expert. That was the reason he surrounded himself with Nate and Kent. In fact, in their final game in season 2, Lasso implemented Nate's formation and announced it as Nate's formation to the team and anyone who asked. That level of honesty and humility actually had Nate suspicious that if the formation foundered, it would be easy to blame Nate. But in watching the show, you understand that would not be the case. Lasso would've shouldered the blame. How many coaches shine the spotlight on their assistants? Humility also allows you to hire people you believe better than you. I have seen bank CEOs make poor hires in key positions because they would feel threatened by strong and smart people around them. If you hire weaklings to make you feel better or more secure about yourself, you are limiting your organization. Lasso did not want to limit his team to support his ego. Because his ego was virtually nonexistent.

Team members react better to positive reinforcement. If your objective is to elevate individuals to be motivated to pursue a goal then positive reinforcement is more effective than negative. In spite of old school coaching styles which is a seemingly continuous barrage of negative feedback, this is less effective. Mind you, there is a place for negative feedback that encourages players and the team to make course corrections in pursuit of a goal. And Lasso does deliver negative feedback in a positive manner. At times it seems like a maddingly positive manner. But this is part of his charm and the stereotype the show's writers are trying to promote. To make him look like a simpleton to make soccer elitists feel a little better about themselves. Lasso has no such pretense (see "Have humility"). 

Make personal connections to your team. Each team member has different backgrounds, different needs, and different motivators. Lasso takes the time to get to know each individually and treats each differently according to their needs. Although perhaps Lasso's weakness is he seems to want players to like him, he certainly puts in the time and effort to show he cares about their success and happiness on an individual level. Although we want our teams to function as a cohesive unit, we must recognize that our team is made up of a collection of individuals. Lasso gets it. And his players want to deliver for themselves, their teammates, and him.

Lasso isn't setting U.S. soccer coaches back 20 years. It is using his success in spite of promoting extreme stereotypes to mock the peculiar elitism found in soccer around the world. If AFC Richmond succeeds, as I suspect the show will play out, how will that promote the belief that U.S. coaches aren't ready for prime time? 

~ Jeff

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