Drawing Corporate Connections: What Can Sports Coaching Teach Us

Haris Mehmood, Shahid Ali Khan

Nelson Mandela famously remarked, “Sport has the power to change the world.”

In the wake of the recent ICC Cricket World Cup, sports coaching and its application to executive coaching sparked our interest. This mounting curiosity led our team to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with top athletes and sport coaches in Pakistan. Though sports coaches focus on technical training as well as soft skills, but our focus was on soft skills of developing them as better team players and more successful athletes.

A lot has been said about the differences between sport and business coaching. But whether you are a corporate coach, or you work with athletes the basics essentially remain the same. We drew on commonalties of both arenas.

We sat down with renowned athletes and coaches to unearth sports coaching and what the best practices can teach us about coaching in the business world. The analogy is strikingly similar. Let’s find out how:

Self-fulfilling prophecy – creating a predisposition to succeed

Training Impact: How do sports coaches maintain performance of athletes?

Sports Coach*: To maintain performance of athletes, coaches must ensure that they encourage the players to reach their full potential and make it a self-fulfilling prophecy for them. They must scrutinize the problems in performances and also provide solutions to enhance their skills. For this, good communication on the part of coaches is greatly required. It is also a good idea to build performance strategy with team. To refine the performance, regular practice sessions are essential. Coaches conduct simulations, drills and exercises targeting different aspects of performance in order to reach an optimal level as sports is a high-performance arena.

Developing strategic insight

TI: How do they maintain the focus and attention of athletes?

SC: To maintain their focus and attention, it is necessary for coaches to make sure athletes know what lies ahead of them – what dreams they are chasing. When they will know the importance of their dreams only then they can be fully focused and ready to give every bit possible to make sure their performance doesn’t hinder because of distractions. Keeping eyes on the goal and aligning big picture helps in staying focused. In the words of Henry Ford “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal”.

An interesting technique used by coaches to block out distractions is the Squirt Bottle Challenge. In it, water is squirted from a bottle at athletes while they have to stay focused on the task at hand without flinching or getting distracted.

In a similar vein, Pickle Jar Technique is used to maintain composure and concentration. At the start of the practice session, athletes are asked to write all of their distracting thoughts on a piece of paper and seal it in a jar. Each time their mind wanders to the thoughts, they are reminded that they are in a airtight jar and cannot be approached at the moment.

Challenging self-perceived limitations

TI: How important is the motivational climate for an athlete?

SC: It is said that at least 60% of the performance lies in the mind, which means that mental strength is the key to success. “The will must be stronger than the skill” as righty said by the greatest boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali. When an athlete will have a motivational environment only then will he know that the limits are above the sky and he can achieve anything.

Great coaches begin by setting the benchmark higher and pushing the team to strive for perfection. They create mastery environment by creating a climate of perfection. This can only be created if the coaches are not biased to specific players and should be an example themselves for the players to follow.

When a performance dip occurs, motivation becomes all the more crucial. That is when coaches use intermittent pep talks. The coach’s verbal persuasion in the form of approval and praise can go a long way for the athlete. Verbal persuasion is important, but it also requires one’s body language to be in sync with words.

Having empathy is another useful trait of a coach. Gone are the days of brow-beating athletes into optimal performance, which typically leads to burnout. Coachees need constant motivation and feedback to perform at their optimal level.

Competing with yourself

TI: How does a coach maintain the balance between competition and cooperation?

SC: Coaches have to ensure that players do not compete with others but create competition within themselves. It should be known for sports requiring teamwork, that cooperation can lead to milestones and legacies, while standalone individual performances lead to good performances that will easily be forgotten.

In a competition, only one wins while the rest fail. It also leads people to define themselves by the outcome hence their self-worth will be dependent on their ability to beat others, not on their own effort and/or talent. This is why coaches must always encouraging compete with your older self, not others.

Cooperation also builds self-esteem, helps in fostering communication, and does not depend on the ability to beat others. As teams, athletes are encouraged to solve each other’s problems while challenging each other’s limits. They also look out for one another, consult on areas of improvement and work on each other’s weaknesses.

Competition and cooperation, however, are not mutually exclusive alternatives that coaches need to choose between. A moderate and realistic balance between cooperation and competition should be used, where competition does not stress only a “win-at-all-costs” mentality because a little competition isn’t all that bad.

Accepting mistakes

TI: How does a coach foster internal locus of control?

SC: To foster internal locus of control, it is necessary that coaches allow athletes to make mistakes and be their own judge in order to learn from those mistakes. Only then the athletes will learn to take pressure and understand how to keep themselves accountable in situations that are hard to combat. This will create a sense of independence that will create athletes converting into leaders and captains.

Managing emotions

TI: What is the role of the coach in the emotional management of the athlete?

SC: Coaches should look at examples like Sir Alex Ferguson to know that emotional management has a huge role to play in sports. They should teach players to be emotionally detached by comments that are negative and use those comments to bring aggression into performances. Moreover, taking decisions without losing internal control is a highly useful skill. It is in fact a prerequisite to establish emotional stability in players to face the game.

Goal setting

TI: How should goals be set?

SC: Goals are usually set in two categories: short-term goals and long-term goals. Short term goals should be set either match to match or performance to performance so that athletes or players know what the specific targets are they are aiming for. Long term goals must be connected to short term goals which should basically be the ultimate dream. It must be understood that only short-term goals will lead to the fulfilment of long-term goals.

There should be certain value in achieving goals. Following points should be kept in mind when setting goals:

  • Must be set mutually
  • Write them down
  • Should be tangible
  • Use SMART technique

Designed goals are always achievable. Goals must be set by doing preplanning and post planning keeping broader picture in mind.

TI: How do coaches help in goal setting?

SC: Coaches should be open to new ideas and learning to understand that how to make the goals explained above. They must not be rigid in their learning of these techniques and must be close to players so that they can trust their coaches being an important part in making sure they achieve their full potential. Goals must be personally meaningful and relate to high priorities for the player.

Building teams

TI: How does a coach promote team building spirit?

SC: Team bonding can only be created by allowing each of them to respectful of each other and understand that all of the players have one common goal. Once they understand this that their competition is not with each other, social cohesion will be created. Leader of the team needs to be passionate and be able to provide solid instruction and training. He/she should encourage a democratic, fair environment and offer support via positive feedback. Slow decision making and long approval processes deter team spirit. Leader has to discourage too many complaints against each other as they hinder team spirit

Ideal traits of coach

TI: What essential qualities should a coach possess?

SC:. Players only trust the words of coaches who have faith in themselves. One should be confident when they speak and be a risk taker when they take decisions.

Coaches must have a sense of self belief. This will allow them to have exposure and awareness of how to be a good teacher or rather a mentor. They have to know that they can also make mistakes and learn from their coachees. Once they have this attitude, players will take them as a role model to not only be a good athlete but a good human being. Following traits were unanimously agreed upon by all the coaches we spoke with:

  • Dependable
  • Genuine
  • Consistent
  • Teaches discipline and determination
  • Approachable
  • Believes in their potential
  • Possess psychological skills (leadership, goal-setting, self-awareness, visualization)

Impact Insights: What modern Executive Coaching does differently is focusing on asking the right questions and building the habit of asking questions. Sports coaches can cultivate the habit of listening more than guiding.

*Responses have been condensed from a series of in-depth interviews

Acknowledgements – We are grateful to the following persons for their valuable time and insight:

Shahid Aslam, Senior General Manager Women Cricket, Pakistan Cricket Board

Muhammad Usman Ghani Khan, Senior Sports Physiotherapist, Pakistan Cricket Board

Muhammad Daud, Athlete

Naseer Sikandar, Director Physical Education Govt Degree College

Waqar Ahmed, Director Physical Education, SSAT Degree College

Abdul Karim Bhatti, Director Physical Education, Government Girls Degree College

Gambat, Sindh

Syed Sakhawat Ali, Senior Director Physical Education, Government Ghazali Post Graduate

College Latifabad Hyderabad.

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