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September 14, 2022

Sports Coaching Business Lessons

Simon Bell

As you read this, the 2022-2023 NFL season has likely just started. (If you're reading it later in the year, how about them Jets again, huh?) In Europe, major soccer leagues are in full swing; elite sport never goes away. Football has an off-season, but then there's baseball, basketball, tennis, cricket, golf... It's everywhere, all the time.

Maybe that's why business writers reach so readily for sporting metaphors. Sport and business seem to have much in common. They both value competition, leadership, strategy, and tactics. Articles about the motivational skills and tactical know-how of elite coaches are everywhere. And they're often in highbrow business publications.

But not everyone agrees that sport and business make such a great match. In his 2017 Harvard Business Review article, Bill Taylor took aim at some of these assumptions, and pointed out a couple of major league differences:

1: There Can Only Be One Winner in Sports

Sports are usually zero-sum. There are winners and losers. Even in sports that allow for ties, like soccer, there's only one champion in the end.

Taylor points out that business isn't like that, and certainly shouldn't be. In any industry, there are opportunities for a wide range of different organizations. And the ones that succeed will be the ones that focus first on their customers, not their competitors.

2: Sports... No I in Team?

What about the talent? Taylor characterizes the elite sports locker room as "a collection of mercenaries ruled by a tyrant." It's a harsh verdict, but self-interest is inevitable. The average NFL career is less than three years. Players have to look after number one, even in a collaborative setting.

Add to this the fact that in team sports, most customers – the fans – actively dislike their team's CEO and management most of the time.

Sounds like a pretty toxic mix for any business, even one that commands unusual levels of customer loyalty.

A Coach's View

But does it have to be this way? After all, Taylor is talking about elite sports, played and run by millionaires. What about the grass roots?

We asked Simon Hulcoop about that. Simon is Mind Tools' Head of Sales for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He's a busy man, but, in his spare time, he coaches Southwater Royals, an under-14 girls' soccer team, and a "Wildcats" group aged five to 11.

So you coach a young women's football team. What's that like?

"Seeing them grow, develop and have fun playing football with their friends is something I really enjoy. One of the best parts of the role is seeing them come together as a team and support each other.

"It's also great to see them put into practice the things we've worked on and talked about during training. I'm lucky enough to have a fantastic bunch of girls that listen and give 100 percent in every game, which is fantastic to see!"

What skills do you need to be a successful sports coach?

"Good leadership skills, the ability to stay calm, and patience. You need to adapt to the different ways your players listen and learn, communicate clearly and, most importantly for me, always be passionate and positive!

"Being someone the team looks up to and respects is important too. You're the key person, communicating instructions and sometimes making difficult decisions. So you need to be someone they trust."

Has your role as football coach taught you anything that has been useful in your career?

"Never give up and keep working hard. On several occasions the girls have been losing and come back to win the game. So we might have tried different formations or instructions from the sidelines.

"It's the same in the workplace. I've hit stumbling blocks with deals or not been able to get through to the right people. But being patient and working hard always pays off."

Do you use the same coaching style to guide both of your teams, or different approaches?

"There are a lot of similarities. One of the biggest things is to be adaptable. Whether they're an adult or 13-year-old girl, everyone learns in different ways. So you need to adapt your approach.

"Also, listening and providing feedback are key skills in both. I don't always give them the answer. I guide them through the problem or challenge, whether that's a tactical soccer problem, or responding to objections about a product after a sales call."

What's more rewarding – your football team winning a big game, or your sales team winning a big client?

"I'm competitive, so both of those are up there for me. Actually for some of the same reasons.

"The joy on the players' faces when they've won a big game, and the grin of a salesperson when they close a deal – for me both are rewarding. But I might shout a little louder when the team wins a match!"

Bill Taylor's article claims business has little to learn from sports about competition and success, from talent and teamwork, value and values. What's your take on that?

"I believe that sports – especially soccer – teach us a lot that we can take into other areas of life. Being able to fail, and learn from setbacks, is one of the biggest for me. My team has learned so much from losing tight games against good teams. They've gone on to be stronger. If it's too easy, you learn nothing.

"Teamwork is another big one. Sport really encourages collaboration, another important skill to have and use throughout your life.

"Finally, one of the biggest things I've seen sport do is build self-confidence. Many girls come to the club nervous and lacking belief. But, through coaching and positive feedback, they end up loving the game, and booming with confidence. You need to be confident in different ways and at different times throughout your life, so this is a big positive."

Sports: More Than Just Games People Play

So there you have it. Elite sport and grassroots sport inhabit different worlds. One's cutthroat and zero-sum; the other's full of positives for learning, resilience, collaboration, and self-confidence.

Well, maybe. How about this: "We really analyze our opponents and talk about what their patterns, strengths and weaknesses are, if they have any. Then we say, 'What are our strengths? What do we need to do to harm them?'"

Analysis, collaboration, communication, self-confidence. That's Sarina Wiegman, coach of the England Women's Soccer Team. In July, they became the European Champions. It's an achievement that still eludes their male counterparts.

So perhaps elite sport doesn't have to be the way Bill Taylor describes it – particularly if it's played by women. Maybe it does still have some value for business leaders.

For a further angle on this, check out "Winning Together" by Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh. It's a book with plenty to say about team building, collaboration, confidence – and winning.

And if you're keen to find out more about effective coaching, read our other blog, "What Makes a Great Coach? – 5 Essential Qualities."

What lessons, if any, can business learn from sports? Share your thoughts and experiences below!

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