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Athletic Coaching Practices Can Apply to Management, Leadership Development

Successful coaches draw amazing performances out of their players and teams via a balance of individual and overall connections. Business leaders can learn to run the same plays.

October 31, 2011
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Related Topics: Leadership Development, Coaching, Leadership Development
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As the World Series wraps up and the NFL season continues in full swing, sports are top of mind for people across the country. Certainly what defines a successful team on the field is the performances of its athletes, but the leadership of its coaches is also essential. The practices that make a coach successful have applications beyond competition — they can be applied in business and significantly enhance an organization’s management, in particular its leadership development.

A great deal of literature exists on this subject, and Frank Mulhern, associate dean of research at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, did a comprehensive review to synthesize it into a coherent set of conclusions. “Basically, I just gathered everything I could get my hands on,” Mulhern said, adding that he reviewed 60 to 80 publications.

Examples include the papers “Understanding Sports Coaching: The Social, Cultural and Pedagogical Foundations of Coaching Practice” by Tania G. Cassidy, Robyn L. Jones and Paul Potrac, and “Foundations of Sports Coaching” by Paul E. Robinson, as well as the Harvard Business Review article “To Build a Winning Team: An Interview with Head Coach Bill Walsh” by Richard Rapaport, and the Industrial and Commercial Training article “Coaching for Better Results: Key Practices of High Performance Leaders” by Clinton O. Longenecker.

“What I did was come up with some themes that were common across them,” Mulhern said. From these, Mulhern derived six pragmatic dimensions of successful coaching, which are defined as follows:

Knowing the Whole Person

“Really good coaches don’t limit their relationship with their players to the athletic realm,” Mulhern said. “They know the entire life and the family and all kinds of other personal aspects about their players. Obviously there are some issues about probing too much into people’s personal lives, but to some extent I think there are contributions to management from this idea that managers who care basically understand and enrich the person’s entire life [and] don’t just silo one’s relationship to work or coaching to athletics.”

Promoting a Culture of Respect

“That broadens into the whole social aspect; not just the pair — the coach and the player or the manager and the employee — but really the whole relationship among all of the people and a lack of tolerance of any kind of disrespect,” Mulhern said. “A lot of the coaching literature talks about how coaches cannot allow that and I thought that one would be a good one to try to import into business. You see that with strong organizational coaches.”

Individual Attention

“Coaches coach a whole team, but they really coach individuals one-on-one,” Mulhern said. “In management that is a tough one because a lot of management tries to come up with protocols for a variety of reasons including legal protection and standardization across different departments, but standardization might limit individual attention.”

Superior Communication

“Communication in coaching is negative — here’s what you did wrong,” Mulhern said. “And so the good coaches are the good communicators who know how to convey that information in a way that’s not going to leave a bad feeling.”

Pride and a Sense of Belonging

“Coaches make their players proud of the team and they really put a great deal of emphasis on that because they know that leads to better performance,” Mulhern said. “That sense of people being proud and really feeling like they belong to something positive has a real upside for business if they can foster that.”

Responsiveness to Needs

“The coach is responsible to the players; it’s really a two-way thing,” Mulhern said. “It falls in line with the so-called servant leader idea that’s been around for quite a while, that good leaders actually serve the people who work for them.

According to Mulhern, some companies are already applying some of these ideas in their management and leadership development. He pointed to Southwest Airlines as excelling in instilling pride and a sense of belonging in its team members. He said the best way for companies to embed these ideas in their workforce development is to make them a part of their organizational culture and include them in how managers are developed.

Jennifer Rosenzweig, research director of The Forum, a nonprofit research firm affiliated with Northwestern University, said this research applies broadly to how leaders work with employees. “It reinforces the idea that in order for a business to really maximize their success [it has to] pay attention to its culture and its leadership practices,” she said. Companies need to “view their employees not as simply a pair of hands that is there to fulfill the tactics of the business or to somehow be [advocates for] the brand but instead [as] whole individual human beings who bring a lot of talent. Part of leaders’ responsibility is to identify that talent and then to find ways [for] the organization to allow that talent to really flourish and grow. Businesses that neglect their employees are in essence neglecting opportunity in their bottom line.”

Daniel Margolis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at dmargolis@CLOMedia.com.

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