If you can’t join them, beat them

In 1979, the Ann Arbor Arsenal soccer team held tryouts. Twelve boys showed up to compete for a single open spot on the team. I was one of them.

kids soccer

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The morning started with demonstrations of individual skills. We passed, trapped, dribbled, and shot the ball. Bonus points went to anyone who could juggle more than ten times on his head. Truth be told, the specifics of what we did have receded into memory. The passage of twenty five years can do that. What I do remember clearly is how much all of us wanted to win that spot on the team. So much that we fought hard to show that we were better, faster, and stronger than the kid next to us. For me, the other eleven boys were the enemy. If one of them got picked for the team, that would mean that I hadn’t. And I would be team-less.

The Arsenal was a “travel team.” Unlike the measly 4th grade team at my elementary school, it played against teams from other parts of southeastern Michigan. That meant taking bus rides, eating out after the games, and wearing fancy uniforms. Winning a spot on the team meant I would be representing not a school, but a city. It would be big time.

The second half of the tryout was a scrimmage. The Arsenal coach decided to pitt the kids trying out against the current team. In other words, the scrubs versus the stars. I remember thinking, “We are going to get destroyed. How are they going to know which one of us is best?”

As it turned out, one boy on the scrubs team did stand out—at least in the coach’s mind. He got the spot. However, the Arsenal didn’t destroy us. In fact, we beat them 2-1.

It seemed so unfair. Here we were, twelve boys who had never played together beating an experienced team, yet only one made it in. The other eleven of us sulked as only nine year old boys can do. I don’t think we did much swearing then, but I do recall a lot of bitching and moaning not only among the boys, but also among our parents.

Then things took an unusual turn. One of the boys—my father claimed years later it was me, but I don’t remember—suddenly had an insight. “There are eleven of us,” he said. “We have enough for a team. Let’s form our own team and beat them good.” Suddenly, the sulking stopped, and the mood shifted. “That’s a great idea!” “Yeah, let’s do it.” “We’ll get ’em!” We didn’t have a coach or a name, much less any idea of how to actually get into the league, but we were pumped up. As it turned out, this was enough. A few parents stepped in to manage the logistics, and before long, the eleven scrubs were the Ann Arbor Cosmos. We stuck together, improved our teamwork, and ended the season winning the championship game 3-2. Our opponent? The Arsenal.

This is an example of what in Practice Greatness I call “We Leadership.” It’s when a group of individuals realize the limitations of being a loose collection of “I”s, each fighting for his or her own narrow self-interest, and discover the power of “We.” It’s not that any of us stopped trying to do well individually. I kept hoping to be the star, to score the winning goal. But this perspective was joined by a sense of being part of something larger.

This desire to join with others wasn’t new. It’s why we had all tried to land that open spot on the Arsenal. But when we were thwarted in that hope, it was back to each boy for himself. Until, that is, we learned a powerful lesson:

If you can’t join them, beat them.

This is about more than competition. It’s about taking the initiative to create something out of nothing—and then following through to completion.

When have you done this in your life? What happened? I’d love to hear.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Steven Johnson

    Cool story and a great message, especially for those of us competitors out there where it is easy to get caught up in the “I”.

  • Steve, thanks for the comment!