What We Can Learn From The Greatest Coaches

by | June 17, 2022 | Blog

“A good coach will make his players see what they can be rather than what they are.”

–Ara Parseghian, College Football Coach, 2x National Champion

In a previous post, I wrote about the overlap between sports and business, and the common characteristics that are shared by great athletes and great salespeople. But now I want to look at this topic through a different lens: the lens of the great coach. What can we learn from them? What lessons can we take from the greatest coaches of all time, and apply to our business?

If you’ve ever played sports, you know how important a good coach can be. I often think of coaching the same way I think about teaching or parenting: it’s easy to do, but hard to do it well. Great coaches first and foremost give us an effective game plan; they have a deep knowledge of their sport, its rules, and how its successfully played, and their job is to share this with the players on their team.

But these “X’s and O’s” are mostly just table stakes for the good coach. Where the separation between “average” and “great” really starts to become visible is in a coach’s ability to help his or her team focus on execution. This involves making sure the team is exceptionally well-prepared. Most of the greatest coaches, from John Wooden to Pat Summitt to Vince Lombardi to Bill Walsh, have all preached the value and importance of practice, highlighting this preparation time as a cornerstone of success.

Finally, a truly great coach must be a great communicator. As the late Red Auerbach, legendary coach of the Boston Celtics, once said, “The most important thing in coaching is communication. It’s not what you say as much as what [the players] absorb.” At the end of the day, you can be the greatest X’s and O’s coach in the world, but if you’re not able to effectively communicate that gameplan, chances are your team will never reach its full potential.

The True Value of a Great Coach: Motivation

Now, we could certainly look at these qualities of great coaches and extend them to the world of business. I could harp on the significance of strategy in business, on the need to prepare your salespeople for meetings and proposals, or on the importance of effectively communicating value props to employees and customers. All of these could be useful ways to apply lessons from the coaching world.

However, where I think the cream of the coaching crop really rises to the top is in the area of motivation, and it’s here that I think the most important lessons for business can be gleaned. Specifically, what I think leaders in both business and coaching are concerned with is how to motivate their players or employees to perform to the best of their abilities, given their role.

This may seem obvious. But just as any parent will know, you can’t parent each child the same way, and likewise, you can’t coach each player or manage each team member in the same way. In fact, as I’ve been watching the NBA playoffs this year, this is a concept I’ve been hearing again and again: that coaches need to get their players to buy in to becoming elite in their roles. This means getting each player to understand what his or her job is and executing that role to the best of their ability.

With this in mind, let’s look at some of the pearls of wisdom the greatest coaches have offered us when it comes to this idea of excelling within the boundaries of our own abilities.

“Don’t ever ask a player to do something he doesn’t have the ability to do. He’ll just question your ability as a [leader], not his as an athlete.”

– Lou Holtz, College Football Coach, National Champion

Providing motivation for your lowest-performing employees or salespeople is often an arduous task. If you could find or afford someone who was more effective, chances are you would’ve already hired them. So what do you do with the group you do have, your “benchwarmers”, so to speak? Do you settle—and let them settle—for underperformance? Or do you push them—perhaps unrealistically—to compete with their higher-performing colleagues?

If you follow Lou Holtz’s advice, I think the answer is neither. While it would be easy to just ignore this cohort as a lost cause and not worth the time or money it takes to develop them, this might mean leaving improved performance on the table. Instead, what you need to do is recognize the abilities of each individual on your team or in your cohort and maximize those abilities rather than hoping for something greater. This doesn’t mean settling, though. It means creating goals that are achievable for them and incentivizing those goals. In this sense, this goal setting should focus on incremental gains, rather than higher, aspirational tiers of success.

 “The difference between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ is that little ‘extra’.”

–Jimmy Johnson, College Football and NFL Coach, National Champion and 2x Super Bowl Champion

With that said, some members of your “team” can and should be expected to achieve more. We often refer to this group as “the middle 60%” and it comprises a cohort of employees or salespeople who can be highly valuable yet are underappreciated in terms of their performance improvement potential. That’s because a mere 5% performance bump from this group can yield 70% more revenue than a similar gain from your top performers. The question is how best to push these average achievers to give that extra 5%.

“It’s what you learn, after you know it all, that counts.”

–John Wooden, College Basketball Coach, 10x National Champion

One strategy to help this group is to focus on learning and enablement. Providing non-competitive opportunities to gain institutional, product, or customer knowledge can encourage growth from middle-of-the-road performers by rewarding them for improving their expertise in a targeted area. This group typically isn’t ultra-competitive to begin with, so finding creative ways for them to challenge themselves is going to be key.

Many of us may resist the very unsexy idea of training—especially those of us who may feel that we’ve been doing this long enough to know how things should be done. However, it’s no secret that disruption is lurking around every corner, and so staying abreast of industry changes may require occasional updates to our knowledge base.

“You can’t teach competitiveness.”

–Phil Jackson, NBA Coach, 11x NBA Champion

Finally, I think it’s no surprise that how we motivate our “star players” is going to be key to organizational success. In the case of our best employees or top salespeople, we need to understand that what drives many of these people, what feeds their motivation, is competition and the striving for accolades. Because of this, leaderboards can be valuable tools that allow top performers to measure their success against their peers, which should play into their desire to compete and outperform.

“When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t [just] the people who are motivated, but [who] have consistency in their motivation.”

–Arséne Wenger, Premier League Football Manager, 3x Premier League Champion

These leaderboards can also serve to remind your high achievers that they’re the best. This might seem like ego-stroking, but in many cases, this sort of consistent recognition is what high-achievers want and need to continue succeeding. These reminders can be provided in other ways, too—perhaps through monthly or quarterly communications, where top performers are highlighted and celebrated.

And of course, as this cohort tends to be extremely goal-driven, offering the right type of incentives to keep them striving for more is going to be of paramount importance. Offering high-end, aspirational rewards are typically the types of carrots that will provide motivation for your upper tier of performers. While this could involve incentives that are tailored to each individual, cohort-wide goals may also be effective in playing into this group’s competitive nature.

The Bottom Line

“To reach your own goals and dreams, you must learn how to assist others in reaching theirs.”

–Joe Gibbs, NFL Coach, 3x Super Bowl Champion

Ultimately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from sports, it’s that we all find motivation from different things. For some of us, it might be beating our competitors and showing that we’re better than them. For others, it might be succeeding alongside our teammates and sharing in each other’s success. In light of this, both motivation and success will necessarily have an individual component to them, and so in order to motivate an audience to succeed—be they employees, partners, or salespeople—you may first have to understand who each of them is.

Obviously, this is a lot easier with smaller teams or cohorts. But the bottom line is that the better you can understand your team, their demographics, and the things that drive them, the more effectively you’ll be able to help them achieve their goals, and yours.

Need more incentive insights? Check out these related articles.

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