Learning from the Most Popular Sport in the World
Jordan Henderson's Intangibles on the field.
Posted May 08, 2019
In international football matches (aka soccer) it’s usually players at either end of the pitch who make the headlines – the forwards (strikers) and playmakers who score and set up spectacular goals, and the goalkeepers and defenses that make nearly superhuman, athletic saves to keep them out.
They are the players, club teams, and national teams that have songs sung about them by rabid fans.
By the way, do the English win the singing competition in global matches? According to my friend in London, of course!
To the chorus from September by Earth, Wind & Fire, spirited supporters have changed the lyrics to reflect both the location of the tournament and their conviction that this time it really is going to be England's year:
Woah, England are in Russia,
Woah, drinking all your vodka,
Woah, England's going all the way!
But singing does not carry the day on the pitch even though it's not for the lack of fans striving mightily to influence the outcome.
Of course, football on the international stage has its clear heroes like Beckham, Ronaldo, Gerrard, and Pele but as in American sports, skilled midfielders and support players often make the difference (think Shane Battier in the NBA, the No Stats All Star). Not every team member can be the headline player, and there are important examples in football of players that managers continue to pick in midfield that don’t seem to achieve eye-catching figures in the statistics that “count” – goals scored, assists made, tackles completed.
Managers say their contribution is invaluable however, and often this is borne out by the statistics – when those players play, the win percentage of the team is greater. The "plus/minus" stats are often clear.
A strong example of this type of player is Jordan Henderson of Liverpool Football Club and the England national team. Derided by fans who say that “he only passes sideways” or “he doesn’t score or set up any goals," managers continue to pick him ahead of more “popular” choices. And that’s because his performances set the stage for his teammates to excel.
Until it was ended at the World Cup semifinal stage, Henderson had an incredible run with the national team – in each of the last 30 games he’d played, England had won, a longer run than any other player in the team’s history. He was also an essential part of the Liverpool team that made it to the Champions League final in the 2017-18 season, playing every game on a run that included beating record-breaking Manchester City, without scoring or assisting once, but continuing to be picked for every game. (Here are Henderson’s career statistics.)
Henderson is Liverpool’s captain, a role in football that is often not much more than a figurehead who calls the toss at the start of the game, but of greater significance at Liverpool due to the legendary players who have been captain in the past – Ron Yeats, Emlyn Hughes, Graeme Souness, and most recently, Steven Gerrard, possibly the greatest player in Liverpool’s history, alongside Kenny Dalglish.
In terms of the catalytic competencies outlined in The Catalyst Effect (cited below) Henderson demonstrates:
- Clear communication/Mentors and coaches others to excel. Henderson is frequently caught on camera speaking and gesticulating to his teammates, correcting their positions, and putting an arm around younger teammates if they need it while suggesting how they can improve
- Invigorates with optimism/Energizes others. He is also pictured shouting and clapping to his teammates, e.g. after a goal is conceded, telling them to keep their heads up and keep going
- Leads and Follows/Puts the team’s goals and the organization’s mission before personal interests. Henderson wasn’t picked as England captain, yet he performs the exact same role as he does for Liverpool with the exact same dedication and enthusiasm, acting as a general on the pitch.
The next time you channel surf and catch a football match, pause and check it out. Look for the midfielders who play the strongest defense, make the crisp passes and serve as the catalysts for their team's performance. I never realized scores of 2-1 could be so interesting.
The Catalyst Effect, by Toomer, Caldwell, Weitzenkorn, Clark. Emerald Publishing, 2018.