I’ve always admired coaches. Not only because they’re in charge and they decide who plays and who doesn’t. And not only because they teach kids how to play football… so, as a kid, I always thought that they needed to know how to play well. Not only because they choose the system and the game plan, which is something which has always really intrigued me. But above all because they have 18 children to work with and they have to get the most out of each and every single individual, whilst simultaneously bringing all of these different components together to create one unit: a team.

Coach explaining the strategy for the soccer competition to a team of kids sitting in circle
Coaches play a key role in ensuring each individual contributes to the overall success of the team. ©FilippoBacci / Getty images

Numbers, teams, and individuals

There was something very special in the football [in the past]. Something that gets me thinking about how football has changed and how the role of the individual vs. the team has also changed. It was the integrity and indivisibility between the numbers on the shirt and the role you play in the team. Both were coming above the individual player.

Yes, think about the shirts’ numbers: they were important because they’re representative of the role in the team. The team and the role within the team were everything. The numbers were not representative of the individual, and they were not owned by the individual.

1: goalkeeper, 2: right back, 3: left back, 4: central midfielder, 5 and 6: centre backs (6: sweeper in some tactics), 7: right wing, 8 and 10: right and left midfielders, 9: striker, 11: left wing, with some adaptations depending on the tactics.

girls playing football on the pitch
Every person has a unique role in a team.

When the coach was calling the line-up and assigning the numbers in the silence of the locker room, your heart was beating faster. Faster than when the teacher handed in the results of the last maths test.

Today the number on the shirt is not any more representative of the role, but it represents the individual player. It even belongs to the individual player. How football has changed… The relevance of the players and their numbers was in the role they had to serve the team.

Not for themselves.
Some things, for me, change everything.

The end game: Maximise the overall team result while enhancing individual contribution and growth

Anyway, in this scheme of team, based on roles and represented by numbers above and beyond any individual, the goal of the coach is to maximise the overall result, while enhancing individual talents and contributions.

It sounds easy.
But it’s not that easy.

Getting results as a team, playing as a unit versus the role of individuals has been – and still is – a significant subject of debate on organisational matters, and they are factors that highly correlate with culture and people’s behaviours both in sport and work environments.

group of people taking notes on sticky notes
Collaboration and assigned responsibilities are key.

You hear about “teamwork” everywhere as the yardstick for harmony, cooperation, and collaboration in the workplace. But sometimes these references to a “team” are taken out of context, lose their nature and their meaning, becoming a label. Sometimes empty.

I’ve observed, in some workplaces, three circumstances that drift away from the essence of teamwork:

The first is the confusion when applying individual accountability and team collaboration.

The second happens when there is a separation between accountability and decision-making.

The third is about the “minimum common denominator”, which implies flattening of the individual abilities in favour of team homogeneity or even to project an image of team unity.

Team collaboration built on clear roles and accountabilities

Working as a team is about having a common goal, working with a shared strategy, and applying very precise roles and responsibilities. Collaborating within the team connects the roles, but it doesn’t change them. Collaboration builds on a base of clear-cut roles and decision-making authority, not in their place. The shirt’s number, the role, should be clear.

Adjusting Captain Arm Band
Decision-making must be assigned to steer the team in the right direction. ©vgajic / Getty images

It is very important to have a highly collaborative environment, but this does not replace the clarity of roles and accountabilities (and hence decision-making) unless in very exceptional circumstances, like when a striker comes back into the defensive line to cover for a defender who is badly – and suddenly – out of place.

When an overdrive of collaboration is needed, this is a symptom of some organizational outages. In this case, the use of collaboration, in place of a clear decision authority, creates the ambiguity typically linked “collective decisions” or “collective responsibilities”. Those concepts are contradictions by themselves.

Very clear individual accountabilities and decisions are functional to the performance of the team (the striker attacks, the centre back defends, somebody takes the corner, somebody receives it, somebody takes the penalty…) to deliver the maximum collective result, via the best individual decisions and contribution.
When the referee blows for a penalty, only one player steps up to take it.

Not five players, all together for team spirit or to bring a collaborative attitude.
And nor do five people decide who will take it.
And nor do five players practice taking penalties every training session to perfect their ability.

It’s just one guy. That’s his job, his role, his task and we rely on him to get it done. That individual will stay on, after the end of the normal training to take fifty penalties and improve towards excellence. Sometimes under the rain and until the floodlights are turned off, while his teammates will be already having a nice hot shower.

And that’s fine.
And if he scores, he scores for everyone.
But he shoots and he decides.

Goalkeeper training
While others hit the locker room, there will always be others who are still out on the pitch, honing their skills for the good of the team. ©Valentin Casarsa / Getty images

Goalkeepers mustn’t go up for corners, but you rely on them when you’re defending one and they come off their line shouting “keeper’s!”

On the corners in our favour, one goes to take it – the one that has that great curved kick, while the other players go up in the box and use their head to hit the ball, jumping higher than all their opponents. They have different skills, and probably different physical characteristics, and they will train differently during the week, who kicks and who goes for the header. And if the one player scores, we all score. Who scored? who kicked the corner? All of the players on the pitch, all the ones on the bench, all the warehousemen. Everyone scores in that precise moment.

But let’s be careful. If the corner is not kicked right, the one who kicked is the only one accountable. If it is kicked right and a teammate arrives in the box late, then they’re the only one accountable. Everyone sees it. There is transparency and everyone is aware.

And that’s fine.
One scores, and scores for everyone.
Sometimes one makes a mistake, and all suffer the consequences.
It’s visible. It’s transparent.
It’s acceptable and it’s totally accepted in sport
It’s the rule of the team game. There isn’t any ambiguity. And there is a great sense of individual responsibility and collective impact.

Importantly, something not obvious, there is no shame in individual talents and exceptional individual performance when you play as a team. This is not in conflict with team play.

No split between decision-making and accountabilities

The second circumstance that could be observed is the split between decision-making and accountability when the entity in charge of decision-making, is not the same having the accountability on the results – or the consequences – of the decision. It’s like saying that the physiotherapist decides how and where who takes the penalty should kick it. For some this is not a problem in a collaborative environment because “we are all a team” and we make it right or wrong all together. Yes. Tell it to the player who takes the penalty.

three football players on a pitch
While teams win together, there will always be moments where an individual steps up on their own. ©Alex Pantling / Getty images

Decisions and the consequences of those decisions cannot be separated. In the same way, decision-making cannot be separated from accountability. When they are separated, the level of involvement and accuracy of the decision maker decreases, because the one who makes the decision will not be impacted by the outcome. And there will be a decrease in ownership for the one who is accountable because they didn’t make that call.

It’s about multiples, not the minimum common denominators

The third situation is the case of the lowest common denominator, as a consequence of a strange interpretation of “playing as a team”.

When you play the left winger through on goal and he’s lightning quick – much quicker than all of us – we don’t expect him to wait for the slower players before he shoots… we score together because we are a team. The quickest player mustn’t wait for the slowest simply to give the impression that no one will be left behind, or because “we wouldn’t look like a team.”

That way, rather than having someone appear slower, we’re all slower as a result. A slow team for the sake of looking like a team. Homogeneous, yes, but slower. Instead, we need the fastest of us to run faster than anyone else, especially faster than all opponents. When instead of maximizing individual talents, they get diluted in favour of team homogeneity, averaging in collective average, we create a minimum denominator that unifies everyone. A homogeneous team, yes, but average.

The team average doesn’t move the team up in the overall league ranking.

If the striker scores, yes, it moves it.

It’s fundamental that each and every one contributes at the very best of their own characteristics and talent, and not in the average of the team.

fotballplayer on the pitch
Leverage the talents within your team and allow them to do what they do best.

Youth team coaches are well aware of their role – namely to put together a team by taking a group of individuals, discovering and valuing individual talents – without suppressing, changing or diluting them, while maximizing them together in a system where the collective impact is greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Youth team coaches also have a quality that has gone missing in other organisations – they spend the majority of their time really getting to grips with the human and technical resources at their disposal. Understanding them deeply, observing, studying the kids to maximize their potential. There is a human side that is about character, suitability, attitudes, abilities, motivations, and all of that quickly comes to the fore among children. You can observe and detect them pretty early.

Soccer coach high-fiving with boy during practice
Coaches play an enormously important role in youth teams. ©Morsa Images / Getty images

There is a technical side that is about the approach to the game, the timely movements with and without the ball, and the skills in touching, treating, and kicking the ball. To learn this the coach needs to watch, carefully, and over, and over again.

[My youth coach] Mr. Cesarino Cervellati had been a great player. Bologna born and bred, he spent the first part of his working life as a player for Bologna, before then coaching kids in the academy. Three hundred appearances and 88 goals in Serie A. But above all he was a great coach and a great man, who knew how to understand, watch, and love children and their development. He knew how to motivate kids, inspiring them and developing them. He gave us our start in football, and he showed us the importance of immersing yourself in the game and in the grass, appreciating the little things that football offers – they’re the most memorable aspects too…

Want to read more? This is an extract from my recently published book, ‘Three Friends, One Game’. Click the box below to get a copy and in turn support Common Goal, a charity that unites the global football community in tackling the greatest social challenges of our time.


This is a tale about football, friendship and, more in general, about life’s experiences that transcend the facts, and that shape some universal values values learnt from football but that remain forever.



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