The Remarkable Link Between Sparta and Instagram
What do Sparta and Instagram have in common and how can it help you become a better coach? An ancient warrior state known for their bellicose nature and simple lifestyle has nothing in common with a picture sharing app with “hearts” and luxurious photographs plastering the timeline. Battles and photos have little to do with coaching. Or do they?
The two share one very important thing that is applicable to your career. Both knew the vital importance of minimum viable impact. In the startup world the concept of minimum viable product has to do with developing a product with the least amount of features that will appeal to the largest number of users. That viability to multitudes of people drives future innovation. In other words, get the product out, get it out to as many people as possible, and pivot from there. Amazon is the third largest retailer in the world and sells anything and everything you can dream up, yet, it started with only books. All that from books they didn’t even own!
Sparta and Instagram employed a different tactic: minimum viable impact - which is a variation wherein you create the deepest and most significant impact with the least amount of input?
The unmistakable power of one word
As legend goes, Phillip II of Macedon had been canvassing Greece, forcing all of the city-states into submission when he decided it was time to seize a terribly depleted and worn down Sparta. Previous wars had reduced Sparta from the magnificent warrior state it once was.
Phillip II sent a message to them informing them to surrender.
“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartans answered with ONE WORD:
With that Phil took a hard pass. Who would dare mess with someone, reduced to a shadow of its former self, but still bold enough to stake the future of their civilization on a single-word response? Sparta saved all of its people and thwarted a war with the word “If”. That is gutsy. It’s also the very definition of minimum viable impact.
The undeniable force of one feature
Instagram began as BURBN, a location-based app that did check-ins, photos, meetups, communication, and much more. The founder of BURBN decided the app was too complicated because people weren’t using it for his intended core use: check ins. After analyzing the data, he discovered people were using it for one primary reason - photo sharing.
The app was immediately pared down to a core competency of posting and sharing photos. It exploded and disrupted the social media industry. Instagram was later bought by Facebook for $1 Billion (US). It is now the most significant photo sharing app on the planet. Its force is undeniable and the simplicity is unrivaled.
A “nation” saved with one word. An industry conquered with one feature. That’s minimum viable impact!
Coaching with MVI
Simplicity, brevity, accuracy, specificity, intensity. Call it what you will, the lesson is crucial for educators and coaches. Our mission is to impact as many kids as possible in our lifetime and we are given a very small window in which to do this. Only a few hours a week and for only a few weeks out of the year. Minimum Viable Impact should be the primary impetus every time we plan a session, speak to an athlete, step out on the game field, and so on.
How many kids can I transform, in this short moment, while not interrupting their flow of learning, and make it stick for a lifetime?
Instagram remains one of the most important social media apps of all time and the Spartans remain one of the most researched and referenced societies of all time. They both still shape our world today in their own way and each of them did it with as little input as possible.
This isn’t as tough as you make it out to be, though. It boils down to preparation, awareness, communication, and execution. You must be meticulous and intentional when planning your session
Preparation - be meticulous and precise in all your planning.
Your sessions should have clear learning objectives, opportunities to check for understanding, planned variation or differentiation to cover the spectrum of athletes, and scripted key learning factors. For example, your warm-up should have relevance to the topic of the day and prepare the athletes for the learning as well as focus them so when learning is happening, they are ‘switched on’. Chaos will ensue, and we should leave plenty of room for improv, but “failing to plan is planning to fail.”
Awareness - be intentional about everything.
Study your athletes, be aware of the environment, focus on where you stand, what you say, how you say it. You have 15 to 30 seconds to teach them in that moment and you need to maximize learning for all. When you speak do you use language they understand, analogies that match to prior knowledge or skills, and can they all see and hear you? If you stand with your back to half the team in a crowded gym and use the language of college athletes with 8 year-olds, your minimum viable impact will fall short.
Connection - you have to connect before you correct.
You know the saying. “Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. If you want them tuned in, they have to connect to you and to each other. You have to build a culture of excellence around human relationships and put them at the center of the culture to fully ‘switch on’ their brains. When we fist bump and welcome each and every athlete by name at the beginning, when we take off our sunglasses and get down to eye level, and when we coach from a place in the heart, they will hear everything we say. That emotional connection activates the brain, deepens the learning pathways, and creates lasting impact. Some of the greatest learning moments that last a lifetime, have come when the coach pauses, leans in, makes eye contact, and speaks softly but intentionally. The sincerity and personal nature of that moment paves a superhighway to the brain that will be open for traffic for years to come.
Execution - your actions and your values must align with what you are teaching.
When we model the values we teach our athletes, the values shift from words to actions. They transform into core behaviors. When we are crystal clear in our daily execution of what we value most and what we want our children to learn, the “picture is worth a thousand words”. Align it all, be very aware of your behaviors and your “ticks and tells”. Children listen as much with their eyes as they do their ears and when we execute with complete honesty and authenticity, the impact is undeniable.
Can you convey more meaning with fewer words?
Can you connect to more athletes with fewer “features”?
Can you leave the deepest impact on the world in the least amount of time?
I believe in you, coach. Sparta thwarted a “world war” with one word. Instagram conquered the social media world with one feature. If a word and a photograph are all it takes to make that deep of an impact on society, what can you accomplish in your short time with athletes?
Though we’ve covered the mental learning environment for our athletes, thus far, MVI is exceptionally useful in the physical training of athletes as well. To help you gain a better understanding of its effectiveness, I will kick this over to the best in the business, Erica Suter. She has been creating the deepest physical impact on her athletes for years and she doesn’t need props to do it.
Erica, weave your magic.
Thank you, Reed, for such a sharp introduction on how coaches can implement MVI to glitter the magic of connection onto their players.
After all, the human component of coaching is far more paramount than the x’s and o’s, the tactics, the wins, the losses, the rankings, and the scholarships.
While these things are all a piece of youth sports, their essence is fleeting. For example, a D1 scholarship is a tremendous accomplishment, but when college athletics comes to an inevitable end, how else has the player been impacted by their coach?
Are they a strong, empowered woman?
Are they a kind, compassionate human?
Are they resilient and hard working in their career?
Are they following their passions?
Are they helping others?
As Reed mentioned above, sometimes, all it takes is something so meager, yet so magical to impact players for a lifetime.
Making eye contact with them when cueing a push-up, giving them a high five when they get their first bodyweight pull-up, giving them a thumbs up after beating a defender one-on-one, encouraging them to find new hobbies, or congratulating them on straight A’s in school.
Speaking of academics and hobbies, coaches must know their players beyond the game. Not only does this build rapport, but it builds trust. To that end, we aren’t just working with athletes, we are working with humans. InsideOut Coaching is one of my favorite books on the impact coaches permeate onto their players for the rest of their lives - from being genuine people, to being persistent students, to being beautiful souls.
It is simple, folks: teach kids the game and life.
What devastates me is we live in a world that is cluttered with noise, and in youth sports, it is only getting worse. More features. More programs. More cones. More equipment. More skills trainers. More speed trainers. More teams in an age group. More leagues. More rankings.
It’s so hard to discern what is best and what is detrimental.
But, I’d argue, as long as we keep it simple, we are doing our players a service.
There is no need for you to outline a U12 practice plan that looks similar to Manchester United.
Play tag and fun small-sided games.
There is no need to give a verbose halftime speech to your 8-year-old squad.
Crack some jokes and make them smile.
There is no need to strap a GPS unit onto a middle schooler.
Ask them how school is going and get to know them.
There is no need to set up a technical session with cones, agility rings, and ladders, and flashy equipment.
Nail down technique and muscle memory first.
There is no need to shout a running commentary the entire practice and overload with cues.
Point out 1-2 glaring mistakes.
There is no need to berate a young athlete for making a mistake.
Encourage them, “you will nail it next time.”
Shifting this conversation to sport science, I am all for advancing the game through technology, but certainly not at the expense of forgetting how to communicate with young humans. Sometimes, open communication is better than analyzing data and numbers.
“How are you feeling today?” or “How did you sleep?” or “What is going on in school this week?” are enough for me to know load for the week for a youth athlete.
Admittedly, I hate looking at data. It makes my eyes gloss over, and my brain explode. Yeah. I opt for human connection.
Again, less features, more impact.
What’s funny is, people in sport feel the need to add more, more, more. And sometimes I believe it’s all a comparison and “one-upping” pursuit, instead of a what-is-best-for-the-athletes pursuit.
So the club down the street gets GPS units? Then, everyone else follows suit. And not just because they want to monitor load, but because they want to have more offerings than the competing club.
So the technical trainer in your area gets all of the SKLZ equipment, bands, rings, ladders, hurdles, and ankle weights? Then, the other skills trainers feel they are behind the game and need to add more flash.
Coaches need to realize it’s not about the features, the materials, the products. It’s about the connections, relationships, and intangibles that impact athletes forever.
Keep it simple.
After all, simplicity is the highest form of sophistication.
About Erica Suter