Get Off the Bench and In the Game!

What transpired last week between the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, led by head coach C. Vivian Stringer, and Don Imus, inspired me to think about the leadership lessons learned from team sports.


What transpired last week between the Rutgers Women’s Basketball team, led by head coach C. Vivian Stringer, and Don Imus, inspired me to think about the leadership lessons learned from team sports.


We already know the success that this women’s basketball team achieved on the court. And, in the face of the disparaging comments made by Don Imus, these young women continued to show up as winners, even after they left the locker room. Throughout the ordeal, the team remained calm and respectful, even though I am sure they wanted to rant and rave. They handled things privately, and with care, although I imagine they were experiencing great pain and hurt. They never once went on the attack, became verbose or pointed fingers. Instead, they met with Don Imus privately; after the meeting, they said little, beyond stating that it was a productive conversation and that they now called the matter closed.

Imagine if our businesses operated with this same degree of professionalism and integrity, when faced with a difficult situation – responding calmly, quietly, respectfully and without blame, rancor, name-calling or finger pointing.

For many years, trainers, consultants and industry professionals have been making the analogy between sports teams and corporate work teams. I was in a bookstore last week and noticed that this phenomenon is even more pronounced today – every sport possible is now in on it. Football great Vince Lombardi may have been a pioneer in this trend, but now we have titles such as: Strike Three: How Baseball Can Help Your Team Dynamic and Coach to Coach: Business Lessons From The Locker Room. From Tiger Woods to Lou Holtz, everyone is weighing in on how to make the analogy between their sport and your success as a team leader. I, for one, have not often succumbed to the sport’s analogy mantra in my training, mostly because I don’t know that much about sports, but also because it has been “done,” so-o-o-o done! However, my thinking has changed and my lack of support for sport team analogy is going to stop. The truth is that when I started to really look and read through some of these books, I realized that it is not just marketing. A lot of what’s being said makes good sense and does connect to work teams in the workplace!

What lessons can we learn from sports?

Hire a coach, not a director:
What’s the difference? Coaches guide, inspire, encourage, teach, train and manage performance. What they do not do is make the play or take the credit. When you coach, you are growing people and helping them to come up with their own game plan. People respond to coaches far better than directors. Ask any great athlete and they will talk about the great coaching they have received during their rise to glory. Who would you rather work for?


Recruit the best:
This seems to be obvious, however, you would be surprised how few managers and leaders really know how to effectively interview and select the best people. Additionally, some managers do not want to hire the best for fear he/she will take their place. The first situation is a skill set that can be learned and the second is just plain foolish thinking. If you have the second problem, this kind of manager needs to be routed out of your organization immediately, as this behavior will not set your organization up for future success.

Have a game plan:
Again, sounds simple, but few mangers and leaders have a clear game plan that everyone understands, is easy to follow and gives clarity on how to move forward. Can you imagine any great sports team that does not have a strategy or playbook? Imagine a team where players did not know what position they play or what roles others on the team are responsible for? Players would be all over the field or court, running into each other and making it impossible to score or win. Does this sound like your company? If so, get a game plan now!

Training makes the difference:
Training and re-training at all levels is imperative. Sharpening people’s skill sets is good for your team and it engages employees. One of the top reasons employees say they stay with a company is the opportunities they receive for continued growth and development. High performing sports teams continue to train, both off season and during the season, to keep in shape, learn new skills and continue to improve. What are you doing to invest in training to keep your players sharp and engaged?

Play to win:
Always!! Every great team is focused on the prize. Constant encouragement, as well as rewards for milestones reached on the way to the big win, will keep the team energized and focused.

How do I start having this kind of conversation in a corporate environment?


Not all leaders will embrace the sports analogy, but there are two great books that focus on this subject that you can begin with. The first is The Corporate Athlete by Jack Gropple, which talks about how to train like an athlete to compete in the world of business. The second book is The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. This book focuses on the importance of balancing stress and recovery to best manage your energy and achieve success. These books will provide insight in the parallels between sports and business and provide you with ideas and strategies on how improve the way you “train” your leaders and managers.

Here’s how to get started:

We have studied some of the methods great sports coaches use and have found some enlightening ideas for use in the workplace. Take a look at our list below and see how many you are currently using, both on and off the field:

· Everyone gets a turn
· Passion for the “game” is essential
· Practice makes perfect
· Learn from your losses
· Celebrate your success
· Synergy matters-when playing as a team, the whole is always greater than the one
· Strategy equals great plays, which turn out wins
· Keep hydrated, both mentally and physically
· Keep it clean-there is nothing worse than a lack of integrity
· Be tough and kind

So, how did you do? Are you currently using all of these methods? Some of these? None of these? A great idea is to go through this list at your next team meeting; have the group rate themselves on each behavior and decide how to raise the bar on the behaviors that get low ratings. The conversation will be a good reminder of how winning teams stay on top.


One more thought:

Batter Up!! And that means you. It is spring after all, so plan some spring training with your team. Following the tips above will help you to raise your batting average and hopefully hit some home runs, too!

Grace Andrews • Executive Coach/Corporate Healer • President, Training By Design • Boston, MA • •