Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Diary of a Soccer Coach: Week 2 - Inter-team Communication, Noise, and Dealing with the Unexpected

Even before I woke up the day of our first Soccer practice I found myself glued to the weather channel.   After seeing the massive thunderstorm and rainfall affecting so many College Football games during the past weekend, and knowing that the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee were predicted to stall out and take time to clear out I was growing in concern.   Some of the weather maps predicted as many as five inches or more of rain locally.   Flash Flood Watches had been issued by the National Weather Service, and there appeared a high probability of rain in the forecast for our game.

Now normally, a little rainfall would not have introduced a bit of concern about whether to have our Soccer practice or not.  Typically the only thing that has ever affected that was thunder storms, or extreme bitter wind chill conditions.  In truth only once in the three previous years I have coached has any of these conditions even been approached.   So naturally I was a little concerned here.   The place where we practice is in a low lying area, that lies in a flood plain area that has flooded in recent memory.  Because of this it was important to know what the weather conditions might be for the weeks practice.

As it happened though, by mid day the rain had mostly moved on, and though still overcast, the rain was gone, and it was modestly cooler, although humidity was still high for our practice.  In software teams, how often do we plan for contingencies like these that could disrupt development, or delay deployment?  Sometimes the unexpected may happen.  A freak ice storm could knock out power to your data center.  A Nor'easter could barrel up the coast and cause localized flooding around the facility you were supposed to test remotely against.   What if the shipment carrying a key part for your data center crashes forcing you to wait an additional two weeks for a customized component to be fabricated?

These are natural impediments that could affect your development process.  As a Tester, a network issue could deprive you of the ability to test on your virtual laboratory.  It could result in a mistaken deployment that results in a dirty configuration unlike the clean environment you are expecting and then it can cause problems as you start encountering bugs, and half to track them down.  There are perhaps a hundred or more situations that could result in what I call a noise condition within the team.  Some of them are internal, within the mind of the tester or team member, some of them are virtual, on the box or serve where testing is to occur, and some could be physical or natural noise that can interfere with your ability to test effectively.

Some of these impediments can be considered in your deployment process, and perhaps avoided or at least minimize the effect it has upon your testing.  However even the most rigorously documented process is only as good as the people implementing it.  As we are human beings, and prone to make errors, you can never avoid all of these.   A missed deployment to a test environment could indicate a whole or missed script in the deployment process.  Why did this script get missed?  The manager may ask this question, but I find the same thing can happen in the soccer field as well.

For the second week of Soccer, I like to hone in on two key skills.  The first is communication.  Whether the players realize it or not, learning to talk to their team mates on the field make a big difference in how they will play down the line.   For Soccer the simplest form of conversation is the pass.  A simple plant of the off foot toward the targeted team mate, and then following through with the passing foot, ankle locked to connect with the center of the ball right about the inside of the ball of the foot.  If done right, the ball will travel straight and follow the same line of travel that your foot was pointing.   I demonstrate this once or twice to our players, who I've saved the trouble of having to find a team mate to pass to, by pairing them up, and have them start with this basic pass.

So I watch the players as they work on their first few passes.   Some kids pick this up very quickly, some quickly get frustrated.  Younger, smaller kids may not be able to kick the ball as far or hard, or might be more focused on kicking the ball, than the technique of the inside pass.   I watch for moments like these, and let the player try a few times before stepping into correct them.  Sometimes they figure it out by trial and error, but sometimes they keep doing it the same incorrect way, and I can see it could cause a bad habit to form.

At this point as the coach, I step in.  I remind the kids to plant their foot toe pointing towards their team mate, to lock the ankle with their toe slightly raised towards their shin and connect with a straight swing of their foot connecting just above the mid point of the ball with the ball of their foot.    A couple more passes, and a little more encouragement may be required.  Keep your eye on the ball (once they get the skill down this may not be as important, but early in the drill process a it may help if the player sees as the perform the task.)  After a few more times if one or another player are having difficulty, then I may step in and demonstrate again, showing what to do, and then emphasizing the difference in how I performed the pass versus how they are doing it.  

One of the common early problems I notice is a player trying to kick the ball with the toe of their shoe.   Kids seem to think they can get more power passing this way, but it really leads to an unpredictable movement of the ball, especially for the younger inexperienced player.  This isn't something you want the kids to do early in their development.  The toe is a very small area on the foot, and many shoes are 'V' or 'U' shaped meaning that if you miss the exact center of the ball and shoe you may hit it more to the right or left and the ball will go out in the corresponding direction. I may even have to demonstrate how wrong this is, so the kids can see the difference, but after doing so I get them doing the passing correctly, back and forth, and may float between pairs, repeating this process as need be.  

As more of the players seem to get a hang of this simple pass, I will then offer them the option to try the same style of pass with their normal off foot (typically the left), and then give them a demonstration of a more advanced pass.  This time using the outside of the foot just behind the joint of the littlest toe and driving the foot to the side, you can actually pass to the side.  All the while I continue stressing, getting the team mates attention, pointing the foot in the proper direction and following through on the kick.

This may seem like a very repetitive and boring process, and for some of the older kids it might.   It doesn't take but a few minutes before I begin to see the first side effects of noise on the practice field.  There are other things to get the kids attention.  Someone brought their dog with them, a butterfly might fly onto the field drawing attention from the drill.  Kids on another field might be doing a slightly different drill and that catches the kids attention.  We have the same kinds of noise in our software teams as we communicate.

A HVAC unit could be louder than normal, a team member may be mulling over some problem they've encountered as we're describing a test we just ran, and the flaw we think it uncovered.  Whatever the noise may be, that noise can impede our ability to communicate effectively the point we are trying to make.  So how can we avoid noise?  Sometimes it may involve asking another team, that is goofing off in the cube next to you, to keep it down as their voices are starting to carry.  Maybe it involves interrupting another conversation that has your team mates attention, when what you need to say is more vital.  Sometimes we have to wait for the noise to pass, such as when a train goes by blaring its horn and drowning out almost everything else you might hear.  Assuring we can communicate our message is key in any context.

Now these example are good if it is an audible noise, what if it is an internal noise?  This is where noticing nonverbal cues is important.  If your team mate is listening, but focused on reading something on a wall, or their computer screen, it may indicate their attention or focus is elsewhere, that could be internal noise.  Another example, is if someone has a habit of doing something with their hands.  It could be something as simple as scratching the back of their hand, playing with a toy of some kind, or twirling of a pen in their fingers.  All of these are nonverbal cues that your team mate try as they might, may not be committed to the conversation.

So how can we avoid these things?  In soccer, when passing I encourage my player to start the passing conversation by calling their team mates name.   Then as the ability to pass becomes second nature I instruct them to keep their eyes ahead of them towards where they are passing the ball.    The other player, I instruct to keep their eye looking back towards the ball as often as they can while moving around the field, so they are prepared to receive and complete that transmission of the ball across the grass of the field to their feet.   Ever wonder why eye contact is often stressed in verbal communication situations?  If our eyes are turned away from the team mate who is trying to communicate with us, then also our ears may be turned away and reduce the optimal ability to hear what they are saying.   That is not to say that we should stare a hole into the head of the team mate we are trying to communicate with, but we should make enough eye contact to show that we value what they have to say.

What do you do when your comrade's attention is wandering, or they are busy multitasking and can't seem to keep up with the conversation?  Ever been in a meeting, in person or virtual were someone is being told something and then the speaker follows with what should be a typical yes response question?  "Does that make sense, John?"  The initial reaction may be for the person to say Yes, but what if their attention had drifted, they might realize they didn't fully absorb the importance of what was being translated to them, and the cue, is John's chance to say, "No, I was having trouble following what you are saying, can you please repeat that?"  During any conversation we can show our continued attention, not just by eye contact by other nonverbal and verbal cues.  Nodding of our head, a quiet yeah, or aha can indicate we are following the chain of the conversation well.

There is one more nonverbal cue I look for when talking with a team mate.  That's when their hands come up to their mouth.  You've probably seen someone at some point do this.  You mention something, and they may begin to cover their mouth with one or more fingers, indicating subconsciously that they are trying to parse together a question or response to what is said, but those fingers indicate that a lot of thinking is going on.  This is a telltale stop sign.  If you see a team mate do this, then it is highly likely that they have a different point of view, or something to contribute to the conversation.  There are other mannerisms that can indicate this desire to contribute back to a conversation.  Someone looks like they are trying to reach out and give you a subtle stop sign, is another.

There are so many things we may communicate through nonverbal cues.  How often do we ignore these cues and keep on rambling through our point, wanting to reach its conclusion without allowing our colleagues to collaborate and fully commit to the conversation?  Regardless of your place on the team, be it a tester, developer, manager, or team player.  Communication is critical.  Without it, the noise may increase, and the ball we are trying to pass to our team mate may end up in the wrong cue, or intercepted by the competition and then we are back tracking trying to recover, and catch back up to what we've lost.

So as you go back to your work spaces, consider these thoughts: Where in your environment does audible noise interfere with communication?  What can you do to work around it?  What can you do to react better to the nonverbal cues of your colleagues?  How can you make sure they are able to contribute to the conversation, and thus collaborate towards a better end?

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