Paul Levy: Balls and beds: building champion teams in soccer… and hospitals

Although he has left his job as a CEO for the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Paul F. Levy is still passionate about improving healthcare. He is also passionate about soccer,  having coached girl soccer teams for twenty years.

Which is why he enters the stage and announces he came here to talk about soccer. He takes his sweater off, revealing a bright orange soccer jersey.

According to Levy, one of the most important things in soccer is preparation. You’ve got to think about what you’re going to do before the ball touches your feet. Shooting in panic hardly ever makes you win the game. But telling people how they’ve got to think may not win you the game either, because people learn in different ways. Some learn by listening, some people need to feel, and others learn best by copying behaviour. And in that way, running a hospital is no different than coaching a bunch of twelve year olds on the soccer field. (And if anyone working in a hospital is offended by this, read on!) Coaching and teaching is not only the core business of the soccer coach. You may have to swap the jersey for a suit, but a large part of a hospital CEO’s job consists of, yes: coaching and teaching. Paul Levy wanted to reduce the amount of preventable deaths (and other harm) in his hospital. (He also would have liked that one patient not wondering why she had her left foot bandaged while she was supposed to have an operation on her right foot).

But how do you avoid mistakes? Well, by investing in process improvement. And by talking: how to deal with mistakes? In every other field of work, near misses do occur every now and then. Even flagrant mistakes. But to doctors, devoted to alleviate human suffering caused by disease, a flagrant mistake often results in dead patients. Quite a  burden.
Although preventable harm should be well, prevented, asking for a zero percent mortality rate and no near misses is as reasonable as asking one of Levy’s girl teams to win the world cup final against Argentina in1978. Doctors WILL make mistakes. Even the best soccer player sometimes misses. In order to build a winning team, you need to create a learning environment. And learning is making mistakes. Even for the highly trained and motivated people who work in hospitals. They hate losing as much as the most spoiled soccer star. The operating theatre is like a soccer field, the player on the bench waiting to be sent onto the field is as nervous as the patient waiting on an operation. A good coach encourages. A good doctor may say some kind words to a person in distress. You never know what impact it may have. It may win you the game.

Paul Levy


A blog by Marije Elderenbosch