Slide Tackling as a Concept

Here I am in high school, slide-tackling a larger, more technical, faster opponent (fortunately you can’t see my embarrassingly long hair in this pic!)

In high school, my senior year I managed to secure a starting position on our incredible varsity soccer team that won the state championship. I was the worst starter, but proud to be part of such a high achieving team, and I managed to pull my weight (no shame to be the worst player on an incredible team, as long as contributing to the team’s success).

The reason I think this is interesting is that I had no special skills that should have merited a place on such a good team. I was quick enough, but not especially quick. I had good enough ball skills but nothing special there. I was the same average-sized guy I am today — no special physical strength to speak of. Not that fast, not that technical, not that strong.

I did have one special trick that enabled me to punch above my weight: my sneaky slide tackle. For whatever reason, my senior year as a starting defender (“right back” is the official position name) my slide tackle was incredibly effective. I think it caught people by surprise. A swift attacking opponent would be bearing down on me, an unassuming defender, and would easily move to go around me. All of the sudden, often when he was already past me, I would stretch out a leg and slide tackle the ball back. He might have even already been several paces beyond me, but all of the sudden, using perfectly legal means, he was on the ground, and I was running away with the ball.

Here was the really interesting thing to me: although it was a well known technique, it seemed not to be commonly used. I didn’t know a lot of people in our league who had really perfected it or used it a lot. I really don’t know why, given how effective it could be. So I worked hard to perfect it, and made it my secret weapon.

The slide tackle concept has always stuck with me. Today, I find myself in a similar position of trying to pull my weight on an incredibly good team. I can’t claim the same level of sheer brainpower and technical skills my colleagues can. So I have had to find my “slide tackle.”

Other than working extremely hard, which I also did in high school soccer, the best trick I’ve come up with is focus. As with my slide tackle, I have been surprised how effective this is. Most people in the world pull themselves in lots of different directions and want to get good at a lot of different things. I will not be very good at lots of different things (some people can, I am not one!), so I have to pick one or two things to try to be very good at.

So, I focus a very large proportion of my time on long-term minded public stockpickers, and I focus on finding and investing in them early. Just as a venture capitalist looks for the next Apple or Google, I look for people who show signs of potential to be among the best stockpickers of their generation. That is where I spend the bulk of my time, trying to get really good at that. (Not 100% of my time, because by design we have a generalist, non-siloed structure. I find there are benefits to incorporating learnings from other types of managers, and from contributing to other parts of the portfolio — but for me, focus is key).

I hope this might be a mental model for people out there like me who want to figure out how to be extremely good at something (this remains my aspiration!), and/or to be a real contributor as a member of an outstanding team, but don’t feel they have any special gifts. I certainly don’t feel I have any. The lesson for me is that you can enjoy some success without being “gifted” if you work hard, if you can be clever enough to spot a leverage point or tactic that is effective but not widely used, if you are self-aware enough to know where you can compete and where you can’t, and if you are confident enough to think you can succeed with the right approach.

10+ years on the Global Investment Staff at MITIMCo, helping invest MIT’s endowment in exceptional investment firms around the world.

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