[Op-Ed] Lasso-ing the New Year

Jason Sudeikis in “Ted Lasso.” A show about a coach providing a sense of optimism and hope to his beleaguered soccer club is so good for 2021.(Courtesy of Apple)

By Megan Bartlett

2020 was undeniably a confusing year to be a sports fan. At the same time that we saw overzealous sport parents insisting on out of state travel for their young athletes despite the obvious health risks, we know that sport has never been more important as a way to promote the (safely distanced) connections we desperately need and the physical activity necessary to help buffer us from the unrelenting stress of a world turned upside down. At the same time that we’ve watched institutions which are supposed to put student athletes first seemingly double down on the exploitation of amateur labor (which, not coincidentally, primarily comes from Black and brown bodies), we’ve also seen inspiring athlete activism, with Black women (also not coincidentally) in the lead.

But there’s been one unequivocal bright spot to being a sports fan: our introduction to Coach Ted Lasso.

For those of you who haven’t yet heard about the utterly delightful show in which an American football coach finds himself coaching soccer in England’s Premier League, chances are you soon will. The “think pieces” about the life and leadership lessons we can (and should) all learn from Coach Lasso’s style have started to appear. Brene Brown effusively praised Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt (Coaches Lasso and Beard, respectively) for the way they embody major themes she’s uncovered in her research, including the importance of vulnerable leadership and being brave. And while I think it’s great that we may see “the Lasso way” show up in corporate leadership training and on individuals’ self-improvement journeys, I’m most interested in whether Coach Lasso can actually make an impact on, well, coaching.

You see Ted Lasso isn’t like other coaches – in obvious, and perhaps less obvious, ways. I suspect you’d be hard pressed to find his boundless optimism against the harsh backdrop of potential relegation in the most elite of sporting environments. And his folksy, down home, musical-theater laden references don’t immediately come to mind as “locker room talk.” And while the sport world might be better off becoming more Lasso-esque in both instances, there are three things I really hope Ted Lasso teaches youth sport coaches: to coach every kid the way they need to be coached; that you can coach with love AND accountability; and to coach bravely, not perfectly.

Coach Each Kid the Way They Need to be Coached
On its own, this is not revolutionary. In fact, it’s likely the norm at most elite levels. But where it doesn’t always translate is at the youth sport level. I can’t tell you how many coaches I meet who tell me that they “treat all kids the same.” That even when a young person is struggling, they don’t change the way they coach, but rather expect the young person to meet their standard, or else. They don’t give the young person the skills to meet the standard, but give them “consequences” when they don’t and a few opportunities to show they’ve “chosen” to get with the program. There’s no room for different experiences influencing behavior, there is only room for compliance. This is particularly true when the different experiences include adversity and the young people having those experiences are Black, or from another historically exploited community.

Ted shows us the value of an individualized approach. He takes time to understand the path that each player is on and support them with the perfect book to help them move forward on that journey. He knows that what veteran Roy Kent needs in order to be his best self is different from what the young, newly transplanted Nigerian, Sam Obisanya, needs. When the antics of superstar Jamie Tartt (doo doo da doo doo doo) become too selfish for the team to accommodate, Coach Lasso does more than just bench Jamie (which is a classic ‘my way or the highway’ consequence). He creates a team experience through which Jamie can see his teammates differently, and vice versa. Coach Lasso trusts that Jamie isn’t being a jerk just to be a jerk (although it may seem that way) and recognizes that his behavior is inextricably linked to his experiences and that his behavior won’t change simply because he gets benched.

Coach with Love and Accountability
How Ted deals with Jaime is also a great example of providing love and support to a player while also holding them accountable. It’s also an example how changing behavior is dependent on Jamie feeling safe and supported enough, even while being held accountable, to reflect on his behavior and be motivated to change it.

Someone on Twitter described Ted Lasso as a great example of the principle of unconditional positive regard, which means to express empathy, support, and acceptance to someone, regardless of what they say or do. This struck me as the exact thing we’ve tried to convince coaches of for years: that kids need to be loved, that relationships help buffer us from the impact of adversity, and that (according to our favorite literal brain scientist, Bruce Perry) relational health is actually more predictive of a young person’s outcomes than the experience of adversity. A caring coach matters and might matter more than anything else.

Coaches often express concern that by meeting young people who are struggling or don’t meet expectations with love, you are not holding them accountable. That somehow expressing empathy, support, and acceptance to someone, even when they do wrong, is somehow enabling their behavior, instead of demanding that they change it to meet your standard (and what is perceived as the standard to which they will be held accountable in the “real world”). But we see that it’s not the benching that gets Jamie to make the extra pass; it’s the “mind games” Ted plays to show that he cares about and believes in Jamie.

Coach Bravely, Not Perfectly
That a college football coach would be hired to coach a Premier League team is obviously far-fetched. But rather than use Ted’s lack of knowledge only as the premise for amusing mix-ups and jokes, the show makes his vulnerability his superpower. He uses it to win over the notoriously brutal British soccer press and the fans at the local pub. His vulnerability sets the stage for genuinely connecting with everyone from the girl who picks apart her male peers in the town square pick-up games to Nate, the kit man, who Ted earnestly learns from and elevates based on his insights and love of the game.

Too many coaches believe that power comes from having more knowledge than their players and hoarding that knowledge to stay in power. And as long as we continue to equate vulnerability as somehow at odds with masculinity, too few coaches will admit what they don’t know and use that vulnerability as a tool to empower their team and build a genuine, reciprocal relationship.

I think we all hope that 2021 brings with it the chance to get safely back on the field or on the court. And I hope that, when we do, we can all take what we’ve learned and be a little more like Ted Lasso.