The Danger In Plain Sight
Updated: Sep 23
Recently, Eagleclaw Football Club experienced an attempted misappropriation of confidential information. This is difficult to write about because we hold everyone and everything to a high standard and perhaps we create the impression we do everything better or right. We don't. Actually, we mostly do everything better and right, but sometimes we get something wrong. Sometimes we are blind. It's not easy to admit someone tried to pull one over on us or that we hired someone who we never suspected could do something like this. Am I airing dirty laundry? Yeah, a little bit. But when it comes to youth soccer, there is too much pride and ego and not enough humility. We ask players to learn from mistakes and to learn from the mistakes of others. Why should it be any different for the front office? Thankfully, the attempted heist did not work, but it has reenergized and refocused us on the importance for all youth clubs, not just ours, of protecting their confidential information. I thought it would be useful to share my thoughts on the subject with those who follow us.
Pep Guardiola famously once said that "football is invented and stolen." He is right, but trust me when I say Guardiola was not encouraging corporate espionage, theft or infringement of copyrights and trademarks. Guardiola was referring, of course, to the study and borrowing (let's call it that) of high level concepts, philosophies and game models from other soccer coaches and soccer thinkers. A good example is how Guardiola observed and studied Ricardo Lavolpe’s tactics for playing from the back - La Salida Lavolpiana - and incorporated it into his emerging positional play concepts. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, appropriating their ideas and perhaps revising them, improving them and adapting them to our particular context.
As we move from the high level to the granular, from the general to the specific, the sensitivity of a soccer club's information increases dramatically. For example, any of us can watch a professional club play a match live or on television or we can watch training sessions that are open to the public. Much of that is in the public domain, meaning not confidential. From those experiences, we can learn something about how the club plays and trains. We can learn about their tactics and even specific exercises they use to train their concepts. We can commit this visual information to memory and use it to shape how we want to train our own teams. If you think about it, this type of learning is not much different from scouting another team. It's all legitimate, mostly. (But see, New England Patriots Spygate Scandal) But what about the club's entire annual training plan, internal dossier of training exercises, scouting reports, proprietary tactical analyses, development plans, and yes, even session plans? As we get more specific and detailed, the sense of ownership and need for confidentiality increases dramatically. Often, these more detailed and specific documents are the "secret sauce". They are often what makes one club or team different than another. They create distinctions and provide competitive advantages. In other words, it is really important stuff.
Look, not everything is "secret sauce" and not all youth soccer clubs are creators. The overwhelming majority of clubs are borrowers, appropriators and consumers of publicly available material, and that's really okay. But some clubs, like Eagleclaw, not only create a lot of proprietary confidential information, we also rely on proprietary confidential information shared by others with us. In Eagleclaw's case, we benefit from access to confidential information provided by our professional club partner, Valencia CF. It is essential to our club that our coaches have access to this information in order to benefit our players. It is equally important and required that our coaches maintain the absolute confidentiality of this information and not attempt to take it for their own purposes or to share with a competitor. At Eagleclaw, coaches are required to sign a written agreement confirming that they will do those things, and that they will return all proprietary and confidential information when they leave the club.
In our case, the recent situation was extremely egregious. One of our coaches resigned suddenly. The resignation caught us by surprise. This kind of thing happens all the time in youth soccer, just not so much at our club. In the rare case when one of our coaches resigns, we just roll with it. Thats business. Within 24 hours, social media was confirming the coach joined a competitor youth club. Again, this sometimes happens and we move on, even though we might linger a while on the loss of educational investment we've made in that coach. Oh well. Next coach up, right?! However, it was at about this time we learned that within 24 hours prior to his resignation, the coach sent a text message asking a Technical Manager of our Valencia Discovery Program to send him a copy of a document we call a Master Plan For Annual Age-Based Player Learning Objectives. Yeah, that's a bit sensitive and confidential! We have the text message, so it's a pretty open and shut case. Obviously, the coach did not tell the Technical Manager he was planning to resign the next day. It appeared to us the coach might have tried to pull a fast one and take confidential information with him to another club. Luckily for us, the information was not delivered and disaster was averted on that day.
Let's be clear about one thing: written agreements did not prevent this coach from attempting to misappropriate our club's confidential information. It was simply good fortune. The coach knew he had signed a confidentiality agreement but apparently that fact did not stop him from sending the text message requesting the information. Had the coach gotten his hands on the information, our only recourse would have been to enforce our contract with the coach through the courts, and no one likes to get too legal in these situations. In most cases, when dealing with responsible, conscientious and ethical coaches, a written confidentiality agreement is sufficient to convey how serious the club is about protecting its information and such coaches will abide by their obligations. No matter how carefully a club screens prospective coaches, however, there is always a risk that an ethically challenged individual will get through the interview, onto the payroll, ignore agreements they've signed and try to take confidential information away from your organization.
How can you protect your club in these situations? It is hard. Extremely hard. I am not writing about vetting candidates before hiring them, though that is obviously important to do. No matter what business you are in, you will make a bad hire. It is inevitable and happens all the time. Instead, let's focus on what you can do everyday to minimize your risk.
First, you need to be vigilant. This means club leaders need to have eyes in the backs of their heads. Observe. Trust your instincts or, better yet, trust the instincts of those you trust. Understand you will be blindsided and you will miss things. You will not see a lot of things coming. But that does not mean you shouldn’t maintain a healthy sense of paranoia. And remember, this happens to the biggest organizations as well.
In 2018 when Manuel Pellegrini was the coach at West Ham United, his match-day line-ups were consistently ending up on Twitter before Pellegrini could even reveal the line-up to his players! There was a "mole" at West Ham.
In another case involving Celtic, the club was forced to investigate internally to find a "mole". Apparently, someone at the club was not only leaking the team's starting line-ups, they also leaked a confidential document discussing player retention, summer recruitment objectives and a list of possible transfer targets. That's really sensitive and confidential stuff!
And this is not limited to soccer. In 2016, Wake Forest University learned that their college football team's radio announcer was sharing game preparation materials with opposing teams! As reported by the media, Wake Forest became suspicious when the team from University of Louisville "possessed an uncanny awareness of Wake Forest's game plan and had positioned their players in anticipation of Wake Forest's plays with an abnormally high degree of success." Obviously, the radio announcer was fired.
Corporate espionage and theft involve huge stakes, tons of money and lots of drama. In a case that I am watching very closely for personal interests, Tesla is suing electric vehicle startup Rivian. Why? Tesla claims that before they resigned, two former employees downloaded sensitive and highly confidential information and took them to Rivian. In a really interesting development, Tesla claims is can prove that a Rivian employee directed the Tesla employees to steal the information!
“Tesla investigators discovered the misappropriation and interviewed Pascale by phone on July 6, 2020. Pascale falsely denied taking any documents from Tesla. When pressed, she continued her denial, claiming to only have taken personal documents. Only after investigators confronted her with specific documents she had taken, Pascale finally confessed to taking the confidential and proprietary documents.”
What if you were the CEO of Tesla? Yes, of course you can file lawsuits and they obviously have. But how do you shore up your internal processes? How can you improve security? What lessons have you learned?
Now imagine for a moment that you are the CEO of Rivian and your new employees have been exposed as people who will not respect confidentiality agreements and are capable of corporate espionage and misappropriating confidential information. Would you fire them? Would you keep them on staff? What would your choice say about you and your organization's ethics and culture?
Our former coach landed with another local youth club that is aware of his attempt to misappropriate confidential information. What might they think about all of this? How does their new coach fit with their organization's ethical standards? The problem is that youth soccer clubs should do much more than teach soccer. The role of a modern, holistic youth soccer club is to provide an integrated education including morals, athletics and intellectual development. Too often, youth clubs focus only on athletics and winning, untethered from morality and ethics. The quality of the environment in which children learn is crucially important. If club leadership possess and demonstrate compromised ethical standards, it will filter down and permeate the environment. Such an environment is not ideal for youth player development.
So what can you do to protect your club? The minute you suspect the confidentiality of your club's confidential documents and materials is compromised or at risk you need to act quickly:
Immediately block or shut off the individual's access to confidential information if you suspect misappropriation or intent to misappropriate. You can always turn it on later if there is no problem, but you don't want to wait until the information is stolen.
Contact the individual and remind them of their confidentiality obligations.
If you have confirmed misappropriation or have evidence strongly suggesting it, consider firing the coach immediately.
Reach out to clubs or other organizations where you think the confidential information will be taken - like a competitor club - and make sure they know they are not to use any stolen information. Hopefully, these clubs will have a chat with their new hire and make sure they do not become accomplices to any wrongdoing.
Now, what can you do at the front end? I've mentioned the importance of a written Confidentiality Agreement, but there is a bit more you can do to protect your club:
Before hiring a new coach/employee, find out if they have signed an agreement with another club or organization with confidentiality, non-solicitation or non-compete provisions. You want to know your prospective employees' obligations before you hire them.
Have every new coach/employee sign a Confidentiality Agreement before they are hired or start work.
Review the security features of electronic document repositories and change passwords frequently.
Restrict access to confidential information to only coaches and others who need to know. Not every person in the club needs access to sensitive training, player development and business documents
Conduct an in-person training session with all coaches to underscore the importance of protecting the club's confidential confidential information.
Any coach reluctant to sign a confidentiality agreement is raising a red flag. Take that sign seriously. Consider also requiring a few other important commitments from your new employees:
A non-solicitation provision is really important. If a coach leaves, you want to be sure they cannot recruit your other coaches away. Remember, your coaches represent your most valuable investment.
Verify your new coach is not subject to obligations with a prior employer that they can't honor while working for you. You want to know about these obligations and you want your new coach to disclose them or verify there aren't any. Also, you don't want that new coach bringing over any information they aren't supposed to have.
Maybe your club creates nothing or you don't care if what you do create finds its way to your competitors. OK, so perhaps you have nothing to protect, nothing to safeguard. That's okay. Clearly I'm speaking to those youth clubs, club leaders and coaches who are creators, thinkers, authors, inventors and developers and are developing "secret sauce". Whether you are a youth soccer club, a college football team or a multi-national electric vehicle manufacturer, your proprietary information is your competitive edge. It represents the result of your organization's deepest thinking about problems and the unique ways you solve them in order to deliver better results for your customers and differentiate your organization from competitors. It represents sweat, long working hours, burning the midnight oil, financial investment in education, brainstorms and breakthroughs. It is all really valuable stuff. You need to use it and share it with your team, but you also need to protect it. The majority of coaches are honorable, forthright and conscientious. Have faith in humanity but be a little paranoid. That sounds contradictory, I know. It is a messy world. Just remember, though, the danger might be hiding in plain sight.