4 Reasons Not to Coach a Business Like a Sport


It’s a pretty common occurrence for leaders and managers to compare themselves to sports coaches.  I often hear people describe great leadership by referencing a famous football or basketball coach.  Now I’m a big sports fan and I talk about Coach John Wooden as a great example of helping people focus on reaching their full potential, it’s an important concept as we improve our business.  But in many cases we point to a particular sports coach and defend our leadership tactics by comparing our approach to the way we see these icons coach, especially if they have won a championship in something recently.  This is a mistake for several reasons, here are 4 of them:

We don’t watch them every day

It’s hard to model our leadership approach after someone we only see on TV.  We can make assumptions, draw our own conclusions and listen to the urban legends based on what we hear or see as it relates to these famous figures, but that’s not very accurate. To understand the intricacies of how someone deals with their team, you have to see the quiet conversations away from the chaos and the daily approach they take to creating engagement and success.  You can’t get that based on soundbites and snippets.  Usually, they write a book at some point and we gain more insight but for a real leadership role model, one that works in your world, look around your business or industry for people who get consistent, sustainable results and also have a fully engaged and accountable team.

Most jobs are different than games

Sometimes it might be nice to think about an off season but most of us work year round doing similar things every day for 40 or 50 or even 80 hours a week.  An athlete’s performance is measured in shorter, game length events that require a very different kind of motivation and a much shorter duration of full engagement.  Maybe you can draw some parallels, but how much different would you manage your sales team if they practiced their sales calls for months before making any live calls, then practiced several days a week, and only actually talked to real customers for about 3 hours every Sunday?  What if you got to do thousands of repetitions of something before you ever had to do it in a work situation?  Fielding a ground ball, catching a pass shooting a puck, these are different tasks than managing a project or designing a marketing strategy. Sports happen at a different pace and frequency than work and leading them similarly doesn’t often make sense.

In business we observe results more than actions

Can you imagine if you had instant replay in business or 15 cameras capturing the every move of your finance team?  Or four days of practice each week where you stand and observe your team intently? Coaches in sports get hundreds of hours of observation time and often from many different angles and opinions that help them break down every mistake, every learning opportunity, every bad habit, every great play.  They don’t coach based on the results, they coach based on hyper-analyzed behaviors.  We rarely get that kind of certainty in business.  We have to observe results and then go talk to our team to find out where we might make improvements or how we can be better next time.  In sports, the clarity of what was done right or wrong leads to much more direct coaching because it’s not subjective or ambiguous or often even arguable.  We have to engage our people very differently to create development and growth in business because there is no game film and sometimes we don’t even get to watch them execute on a regular basis.

The teams are drastically different

What if your business consisted of people all of the same gender, all close in age, all with relatively high confidence, a track record of performance, at the top of their game, with the same definition of winning, a scoreboard everyone could see, and holding the same specialized position for their entire career?  Those things are present on most successful high level sports teams but most of us don’t work in an environment even remotely like this and even if we have one or two things in common, the level of complexity associated with business is far beyond the singular focus of athletes.  If you look at the differences between sports and business it’s almost foolish for us to assume that a similar style of coaching or leadership would work in both cases.  There are certainly places we can draw a few parallels but there are far more differences than there are similarities.

Business is not a sport.  We don’t practice like sports or play like sports or have seasons like sports or draft or recruit like sports and we shouldn’t coach or lead like we do in sports.  Business is complex and multifaceted and requires decisions making with hundreds of variables, most of which are not based on reflex or muscle memory.  Leadership in business is about causing diverse teams of people to fully engage every day and perform year round with little or no real practice and often a complex and ambiguous scoreboard.  Successful sports coaches are incredible at what they do but next time you are tempted to lead your business like a football team, stop and think about what kind of leadership your business and your people need.

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