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Startup Rhythm: How Using Lionel Messi Dribbling Principles of Slowing Down Increases Business Speed

If you've ever played sports seriously, you understand the power of rhythm and timing. When I played soccer, my trademark was in the art of dribbling. One of fundamentals of dribbling is to develop a rhythm and pace with the ball at your feet. Brazilians of old, such as Pele and Garrincha, were masters of bringing rhythm to their dribbling style. 

Today's top rhythm player is Lionel Messi—the best football (soccer) player in the world. When Barcelona lost to Bayern Munich a few years ago, Messi was out with an injury. Without Messi there to set the rhythm of the game with his dribbling style, the rest of the team seemed lost on the field. It was an ugly game to watch if you’re a Barcelona fan. The Germans solidly beat Barcelona because they brought their own version of the rhythm.

Rhythm in soccer is understated. Every player and every team has some form of a rhythm. When I watch a game, I look for the rhythm of each team. Great players, like Messi, have a consistent rhythm when they play, and if you’re on the opposing team, your first goal is to break his rhythm. If you break his rhythm, you break the rhythm of his entire team.

The breaking of Messi’s rhythm was evident in the final of the Copa America Centenario between Argentina vs. Chile. The Chileans knew what they were doing. It seemed like every time Messi got the ball, three defenders were harassing him. Chili stripped Messi of the ball more times than I can remember. But despite being double and tripled marked, Messi managed to have periods of the game where he maintained his rhythm.

It was only after Argentina’s coach, Gerardo Tata Martino, substituted another great player, Ángel Fabián Di María Hernández, did the Messi rhythm break down even further. Di Maria, a forward with great dribbling and technical skills, was a threat in his own right. He had been taking some pressure off of Messi. Once he left the field, it seemed like the entire Chilean defense swarmed around Messi. His rhythm dissipated rapidly and Argentina ultimately lost to Chile in penalty kicks. Messi may be the best player in the world, but soccer is still a team sport. He can set the pace and rhythm for the team, he can lead them to victory, but he can’t do it alone.

Messi Magical Rhythm

When Messi keeps his rhythm going for the entire game, he is unstoppable. A key part of Messi's dribbling magic is the changing of speed. His technique is simpler than most other players—and much different from the Portuguese legend Ronaldo. Messi can accelerate instantly into full speed with the ball, from a standing start position.

Just as deadly, and maybe not recognized by the average soccer fan, is his ability to change the rhythm by slowing down in front of a player quickly—and then use his soccer intuition and his dribbling instinct to either change direction or accelerate at the right microsecond. He seems to defy the laws of gravity.

This is how it looks from a defender perspective:

Messi comes at you slowly tapping the ball on his left foot. Tap … tap … tap… and then he takes off like a rocket when you least expect it. He does it so fast you just can’t catch up to his cheetah-like explosive acceleration.

When you see it from a defender’s perspective, the change of Messi’s speed when he slows down almost to a crawl looks deceptively simple. “How come these world-class players can’t figure this out?” you might ask. They can’t figure it out because he changes his rhythm and pace in a microsecond.

Messi's rhythm is frustrating:

He slows down … he speeds up … he accelerates … he slows down … he stops … he speeds up … he turns with the ball … he changes direction again … he stops … he takes off like a cheetah with the ball sticking to his foot like a glue. The change of his rhythm is deadly against any defender because even though they know what he “might do,” they can’t predict “when.”

I’ve been saying it for years. Being a rhythm soccer player myself, the only way you can stop players like Messi is to stick a player or two or three on him like a swarm of bees and hope you break his rhythm quickly enough that he doesn’t find an open teammate. Sure, it is a huge gamble but it paid off for the Chileans.

Business Rhythms

The same principle applies to startup rhythm, quickness and speed. I’m a big believer in increasing startup (or any business) speed as much as you can to penetrate the marketplace before your competitors. But there are points in the evolution of any emerging market where it might be wise to slow down your startup or business. Slow down. Take time to determine the direction of the market changes occurring in your sector in order to avoid wasting precious financial resources on chasing market ghosts of the past.

When it comes to business modeling and strategy, delaying key strategic decisions might seem like an insane management decision, but depending on the market variables playing out, it might actually enable your startup or business to gain speed. It is a soccer and business paradox. When you slow down for a moment, you might be able to see the market patterns evolve quicker. Part of Messi’s rhythm is finding and/or creating open spaces. Once he sees or creates an open space, he rapidly accelerates into that direction. Good luck catching him.

It is common sense in soccer, business and even war. It’s easier to penetrate markets or spaces where your competition is either weak or where there are empty spaces (or pockets of opportunity) without anyone to defend.

When you face obstacles that cause your startup or growing business to slow down, instead of trying to accelerate head-on against your competitors, slow down. Stop. Look around. See the empty spaces around you. They are there. You just have to open up your business mind to see them. But once you see them, accelerate like a speed-demon Messi.

© 2016 entrepreneurdex

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Damir Perge, author of Entrepreneur Myths: The Startup Reality, is the founder of entrepreneurdex, a startup studio using complexity science to fund, launch, accelerate and scale startups and growing businesses.

An entrepreneur and investor, with more than 25 years experience, he's worked with ventures in the technology, internet, media and publishing, entertainment, energy, and manufacturing sectors raising more than $300 million in capital for various companies and investing more than $50 million into startup and emerging ventures. He's sat on the boards of 11 companies, served as editor-in-chief of Futuredex, a private equity magazine. Follow 

Pre-order Damir Perge's upcoming books at damirperge.com >

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