Danny Jackson on: Long-Term Planning Leads to Long-Term Success
Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders. SNN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.
Now more than ever, we live in a culture that craves instant success. And the need to execute and achieve quickly can sometimes cause players to lose sight of what it takes to build true excellence – an investment in planning and preparation that spans many years.
In premier sports, coaches, managers and players operate under more scrutiny than ever before, as the proliferation of social media and outlets for news and commentary creates a non-stop conversation about performance. Top athletes and coaches live under a microscope, where success and failure is amplified at lightning speed.
But longevity – and the long-term success of any team, coach or individual, in sports or business – results from long-term planning. And buy-in is required at all levels to execute winning strategies. Most organizations need recalibration at some point, whether suffering from a single traumatic event or too many years of losing seasons. They need to do a 180-degree turn and re-establish themselves. Time, patience, energy and commitment are required to achieve these seismic shifts, and the hierarchy must be on board.
It’s a tough synergy to attain, as many coaches now have very short windows in which to demonstrate achievement. They might be fired within a year if they don’t deliver instant success (and this is no longer just at the professional level). Expectations in sports – and at the top of other professions – have always been brutal. Everyone knows the old saying, “You’re only as good as your last game.”
But the money involved in participating or watching sports, and the relentless exposure that envelops premier sports, has intensified the pressure.
Mega stars like Pelé, Messi and Michael Jordan will always emerge, but even today’s average player is stronger, more powerful and more fine-tuned than ever before, raising the competitive stakes. Participation in youth sports has quadrupled in the past 20 years and the quality of players has increased significantly.
Coaches and players have a lot more to contend with than they did 20 or 30 years ago.
Building a successful franchise or team is all about a plan and creating chemistry – combining the right elements at just the right time. Yes, there’s a lot more money in professional soccer now and far-flung owners can throw a lot of it around. But you can’t just buy 11 new players who work perfectly together. The ability to find those players, and motivate them to work together and win, is one of the hallmarks of a talented coach. Sometimes, completing the puzzle takes time.
Take Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, one the world’s most successful and admired coaches. He’s led the team for more than 25 years. In today’s world, he’d have probably been fired long ago, because he didn’t deliver great results at the beginning of his tenure. But eventually, he figured out the right formula and all of the organization’s effort, work and patience paid off.
I remember when Ferguson introduced his young players to the Manchester United’s first team in the mid-‘90s, including David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville Brothers. Ferguson didn’t need to rebuild Man Utd from the ashes, as it was already the most dominant team in the English Premiership. But his brilliance lies in his ability to look far down the road, and tweak his teams in preparation for the next wave of success.
There was much heated discussion on “Match of the Day” – England’s most popular soccer program – about his decision-making, and many criticized his strategy of bringing in younger players and pushing older ones out. Years later, Manchester United’s ongoing success, Beckham’s career, and the careers of his contemporaries speak volumes about Ferguson’s long-term plan and vision.
There’s no doubt good luck is also an element of long-term success – it’s the magic ingredient, and you never know when it will boost all of your hard work and preparation into overdrive. But I do believe you earn your luck; you have to be in the game to benefit from good timing. Organizations that enjoy longevity do often benefit from good luck, some serendipitous chemistry, but it just buoys them to the next level, where their plan kicks in and begins to work.
For me, the Olympics in London, which will inspire the entire world in just a few days, are the ultimate expression of long-term planning. The games encapsulate all that is amazing and painful about sports in one intense, two-week period, from the exhilaration of success to the agony of defeat.
No one is an incredible athlete from day one. These journeys begin in childhood. The performances these athletes execute on the world stage are the culmination of the superhuman physical and mental endurance required to push through years of the most demanding training. We really can’t appreciate enough what these athletes go through, to walk around the track on opening day, representing their country. They train intensely for years. And many receive little attention and support from the outside world, especially athletes competing in less-popular sports that receive less exposure.
But an archer or kayaker is no different during those two weeks than the most highly-paid track star or soccer player. They walk the track during the opening ceremony, wearing the same outfit, waving to the same crowd, absorbing the same adoration and respect from their home country. Each athlete has one chance, one ultimate high-profile event. And if they achieve and win, the prize is the same: a Gold medal.
In soccer, I always felt there was something to anticipate around every corner. The journey starts at the end of one season to the next. There’s always the next game. I always looked forward to practice after a bad performance, to wipe the slate clean and get myself feeling good again.
For many athletes, the Olympic Games are their opportunity to put their name in bright lights. But for those who don’t maximize their potential in their given competition, it can be devastating. I have huge admiration for these athletes, because many simply begin the long journey again. Those who decide to compete again withdraw to their hometowns and begin their preparation and training anew. In my eyes, this is not failure. This is the ultimate success, and this is what sports represents – putting yourself in a position to succeed.
Every journey, whether it lasts for days, a season, or years, benefits from a long-term plan. Whether your road leads to the Olympics or winning a rec soccer game.
It takes courage and commitment to set goals and pursue them wholeheartedly, to risk failure. You have to push your chest out and demonstrate confidence. And you won’t always succeed. But I found that if I prepared thoroughly and did all I could, I could walk away with my head high. Working to your highest potential takes the sting out of failure.
There is always more that you can do; if you’re in school, you can always read a little more. Study a little longer. In soccer, you can touch the ball a few more times. I tell my 10-year-old players, do your homework and you’ll be more prepared for the test or game.
My preparation is a little different these days. In my job now, the Internet could go down or my computer could freeze during an important presentation. I remind myself to check all the critical connections one last time. But sometimes things just happen. My former coach at the Seattle Sounders, Brian Schmetzer, always told us: “Control the Controllables.”
But if you walk away from any experience inspired to do more, to execute more effectively, you’ve learned valuable life lessons; no leg of your journey is wasted. This is invaluable advice for any person, anywhere.
My parents – who are in the midst of a mass wave of patriotism in England right now, readying for the Olympic Games in London – recently visited and brought me a mug that says: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The pre-WWII slogan encapsulates the courage and stoicism the English are so famous for, passed down from generation to generation.
Sipping my coffee, I look at this mug and think about times I didn’t make the team, the times I didn’t nail the tryout. And how I could nonetheless walk away proud, because I’d prepared. I used my mistakes and weaknesses to ready myself for the next challenge. I carried on.
My own journey has taken unexpected turns. When I left England 14 years ago to attend college in the U.S., I had no idea I’d end up playing professionally in Seattle, meeting my wife here and joining an exciting tech start-up. My long-term plan as a young soccer player was to play for FC Barcelona. Along the way, my path took some turns. I never achieved my ultimate sporting ambitions, and never played at the Camp Nou, Barcelona’s home stadium. But I know my ultimate destination: to be happy and healthy.
My happy is different from other people’s happy. I know what makes me content, and I have ambitious aspirations to fulfill. Each day, I work hard to make progress towards achieving my goals. But I can always do more. I fell a little short in my soccer career, but I now have a new opportunity to establish myself in the business world. My daily goal is to eliminate the tag of being the ex-soccer player who now works in business and technology, and become the highly-successful business leader who once played soccer. There is a distinct difference, and that is what drives me forward.
Our goals and long-term plans change over time. They can and should be dynamic, evolving and growing along with our skills, wisdom and life experiences. When you need to recalibrate, take a step back and take some time to formulate your goals and ambitions; focus on where you want to improve. There will always be bumps in the road. Use them to figure out where you’re going.
Be aspirational and set goals – large and small – that inspire you. Do you want to run a mile one second faster? Achieve that great promotion at work? Or prepare for a career in professional sports?
It all starts somewhere. It’s just a matter of time and preparation.
If you know your destination, with determination, planning, hard work and a little luck, you’ll reach your end goal.
Keep Calm and Carry On!
Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.