When I was a kid, I played a lot of soccer. A lot. I played for a local team that was really, really bad. Once we went a full year not only not winning any games, but for more than 30 straight weeks we didn't score a single goal. Not one.
Finally, in complete frustration, our coach took us out onto the pitch one freezing Wednesday practice night and made every one of us line up and practice kicking the ball into an open net. (We were so bad a few of us failed in doing even that.)
We did the same thing the next practice session, and the one after that, until we all felt this was a bit silly. Of course, we could kick the ball into an open net. Anyone could do that.
The following week, the coach put a goalkeeper in place, and had us practice scoring into the net, one on one with just the goalkeeper, no defenders. We did that for three or four weeks, until we could put the ball past the 'keeper more often than not.
Over the next few practice sessions the coach allowed first one defender, then two, then three on the pitch, while we strikers practiced running past them and scoring, over and over and over again.
Of course, in soccer it's pretty darn easy for a team to score against just one defender, and not that much harder against three, but we were slowly learning to do as a team what we had forgotten how - to score goals. And during that final series of practice sessions, something dramatic and highly unusual happened: we scored a goal in a real game. Then another. And another. Then we scored two, then three times in a single game. Which we won. Won!
How to Turn a Team Around
I'd like to say we turned the team around and won the league that year. We didn't (or the year after - or ever, while I was playing), but we did become contenders, a 'normal' team, battling for a mid-league place, rather than the miserable also-rans who were easy meat for any competitor looking to run up points and a high-scoring victory.
I was only in my teens then, and I've thought of that year of soccer hell many times since. Especially when things have been tough in business (which has been often). There's nothing more debilitating than feeling like you'll never score a goal, that you've lost the ability to do so. And that feeling has its equivalent in business - the feeling that you'll never truly attain the level of success you're looking for.
I've spent years working out the equivalent ways in business to practice hitting the ball into an empty net, or to score against a small group of defenders, just to get back the rhythm of success. And if you're going through a barren period, maybe you should try it, too.
Here are some of the ways I've gotten into the goal-scoring rhythm again. Your mileage may vary:
- When things got tough in the first years of my consulting practice, I took on clients far smaller than I wanted, and rather than resentfully doing the work, I consciously 'practiced' delivering the very best work possible.
- When I first started public speaking, I accepted every opportunity that presented itself, for low-fee or no-fee, so I could learn to 'put the ball in the net' in a low-risk environment. There were times I spoke to a near-empty room, and on one occasion delivered a 45-minute talk to an audience of one.
- When my partner and I opened our first Pizza Hut restaurant back in Ireland, our staff was completely and utterly overwhelmed, and we had a week of customer service nightmares. When customers stopped coming in, we flooded our friends and families with 'free food' vouchers so we could practice bussing and managing a full restaurant.
- When I co-founded a PR agency that started with no clients, we would produce real PR campaigns for companies we wanted to work for, even though we hadn't been retained by them. Producing those dummy campaigns honed our skills, provided us with great collateral when pitching real clients, and we even convinced a couple of the 'target' companies to take us on by showing them what we could do.
If you feel like your business isn't succeeding the way it should, what can you do to practice putting the ball in the net?
Need help getting back in the game? Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.