Yan Li lives and breathes American football. As a corporate trainer who uses American football to deliver management workshops to top talents, he estimates that he’s spent over 8000 hours watching, studying, and adoring it. That’s despite it being a sport that 99% of Chinese people have hardly any interest of or knowledge in.
When Yan introduces his American football-themed workshop’s potential, his client’s initial response is usually confusion and disbelief. Isn’t American football just a violent, barbaric game where big guys run around hitting each other? What can this sport from the other side of the world possibly teach Chinese managers about team management, leadership and talent development? But after nearly 150 workshops delivered to over 100 business organizations and over 5000 participants, the overwhelming feedback is, “What I learn is how to play to win the game and play like a champion today!”
Why American football?
“Sport reflects the behaviour of the people playing the sport”, says Yan, “And more so than any other sport, American football teaches you the importance of teamwork, communication, discipline, execution and leadership.” Yan also emphasizes how American football is the best sport to demonstrate the nature of today’s economic realities. Much like in the business world, American football features a highly competitive team playing in an intensely competitive environment. This direct parallel is intrinsically valuable for helping managers today lead their teams to become more successful.
At the beginning of his corporate management workshops, Yan shares how many of his workshop participants ask why ping pong isn’t as useful an analogy for talent development, since it’s much more familiar to Chinese people. “Well, it used to be our number one sport”, laughs Yan. “Not anymore. Times are changing and shifting from a more individualistic approach that avoids direct confrontation to a more collaborative and team approach. Just look at the huge popularity these days of sports like basketball and soccer.”
将美式橄榄球融入到教给培训参与者的关键管理概念中，是严立新颖独特的方式。 “经理们并不想坐下来听他们之前听过的东西，” 严立说。“要想真正改变他们的思维方式并逐渐渗透关键管理概念，他们需要有自己正在学习新东西的感觉。美式橄榄球就是用一种很酷的方式，来展示在商业环境中团队合作、信任、以及明确共同目标后如何运营。尤其是参与者们在球场上的时候，这是他们从未有过的体验，而且他们真的很喜欢这种方式！”
Using American football is Yan’s novel and unique way to engage and teach workshop participants key management concepts. “Managers don’t want to sit and listen to things they feel they’ve heard before,” says Yan. “To truly change their mindset and instil key management concepts, they need to feel like they’re learning something new. American football is a cool way to show how teamwork, trust, and clear, mutual goals also play out in business settings. Especially the part of the workshop that participants spend out on the field, that’s something they’ve never experienced before and really like!”
What can American football teach us about management?
Good teamwork – According to Yan, the most profound takeaway from American football for strong leadership is the necessity of good teamwork and unconditional trust in your teammates. “The team is always bigger than you,” he emphasizes. “The team comes first. Do your job, and you help yourself and each other.”
This insight into teamwork is clearly demonstrated in the game of American football. The quarterback is the most important player. He’s the one who controls the game, most impacts the team’s ability to score points, and gets credit for winning games. However, there are also five offensive linemen who protect the quarterback to give him the space and time he needs to throw the ball and score touchdowns. But because they hardly ever touch the ball, these players are never viewed as heroes, or draw the attention of the camera.
In business, the highly visible sales and marketing guys are like the quarterback. While the supporting functions, like the HR, finance and operations teams in companies are a lot like linesmen. They’re the ones who support the ability of the sales and marketing people to secure major deals and make the sales. So to be a strong leader of a team, managers must have a clear understanding of what being a ‘team’ really means. As Yan highlights, seeing the bigger picture and trusting the team unconditionally are fundamental to the success of any leader.
Efficient communication – Each play in American football has just 40 seconds to prepare. The head coach, assistant coaches, the quarterback and every player must all communicate with each other efficiently and clearly within this short time. “All successful plays are the result of precision execution and highly effective communication,” says Yan. “For effective business communication, leaders must also talk directly, know the value, process and purpose of their communication. They need to make sure the entire team is on the same page, speaking the same language, and working towards the same goal. Whether playing to win in a football game or business situation, good communication is essential.”
Solid execution – Once you’ve established the team goal and communicated it well, you now need to execute it well. “This means every person doing their job and fulfilling their task perfectly, 100% or even 120%,” says Yan. This is crucial for the team’s success. In American football, once the play has been designed and communicated by everyone, the wide receivers must know who is going to receive the ball. However, even those not receiving the ball have their task to execute to the best of their ability. Based on the design of the play, this means distracting defenders to give the targeted receiver the best chance to catch the ball. So, to execute a task and achieve the team goal, every team member must know his role and perform it to the best of his abilities. You must always try your best, even if the results from what you do are unclear. You must match your capability and role with your perseverance and desire. “American football teaches you to never give up, says Yan. It teaches you why you need to do your best every single moment to execute and achieve the team goal.”
While leadership is important, Yan explains that it’s a natural product of learning these three things. “Leadership is not a monopoly of a leader,” he says. “It’s about doing the right thing and being in the right position at the right time. And incorporating the key characteristics of teamwork, communication and execution.”
Ultimately, Yan says his workshops focus on changing mindset. His workshop deliveries are able to enhance and change behaviour. As they say, ‘old habits die hard’. But new habits are essential for achieving better results. Yan believes that people born after 1980 and 1990 and already in management and senior leadership positions have more self-awareness, are more open to new approaches, and are willing to challenge existing ideas. So it’s often easier for them to change their mindset and behaviour.
Yan’s unique approach management and leadership training is rooted in his deep belief in both the value of his product and the power and influence of the game of American football. So, while most Chinese people may have no idea what American football is or how it’s played, he passionately believes that this strategic, collaborative and energetic game can effectively teach Chinese professionals about teamwork, communication, execution and a lot more.