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Stephen Walker

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What we can learn from sports coaches


Stephen Walker uses observations from sport to ask questions about the skills needed and the deliverables of business coaching.
Coaches are very evident in the sporting world. I watched Federer versus Murray at Wimbledon and, not being a great tennis fan, was interested in the TV footage of their coaches. I wondered what they were thinking, wondered what they brought to their superstar clients and what lessons I might draw from the comparison.

Sports coaches

To continue with tennis, there was some clarification of the rules regarding coaching during the Wimbledon TV footage. When the roof was being closed on Centre Court both players were allowed to go off court and were coached. It's interesting that this is allowed, when coaching between sets is not permitted. Perhaps there is an element of not wanting the players to cool down, to lose the fire in their belly (and spoil the spectacle) and the coaching invigorates their competitive animus.
In rugby, coaching from the touchline is not permitted. It is difficult to police by the referees. Have you noticed when an injury or a goal kick stops play the water carriers whisper animatedly to the players? It would be wrong of me to suggest that they are doing any more than passing on their congratulations of a game well played.
In Football (Soccer in the US) coaching from the sidelines is definitely banned. I believe a team manager was banned from being pitch-side recently as punishment for flouting this rule.
"Sports coaches work out your opponent's weaknesses and strengths to best match what you can do to outperform them. You will always find they have their attention focused 100% on the game in hand."
Clearly the sports world takes coaching and its effects on performance very seriously. If we explore some of the reasons why, we might just learn something that will help us explain the benefits of our own coaching services.

What do sports coaches do?

I wouldn't suggest that all sports coaches do all of these things. Often there are teams of coaches with specific skills. Training in the skills of the task is a big part. To win Wimbledon or to be the market leader takes a number of skills. Somebody has to teach you those skills. They have to coach you to improve those skills. They have to 'watch' you and feed back on the performance. They suggest improvements in techniques, constantly polishing your performance.
Then there is the mentoring aspect. As the roof was closing at Wimbledon, I wonder what Federer and Murray heard from their coaches: not basic skill training; perhaps some coaching on technique; perhaps some yee-ha confidence boosting; definitely the coach's observations on the opponent and his reaction to the game.
Mentoring reflects on your performance in the real world and suggests better tactics and strategies to defeat your opponent. What I think goes through the coach's heads as they watch their clients is 'play to his backhand', 'make him run, his leg hurts' and not just 'serve a little higher and it will go over the net.'

Characteristics of good sports coaches

They are experienced at the game or a narrow aspect (a niche) of the performance needed to win. Successful coaches are good at paying attention to your performance. I don't imagine Federer would consider a set of DVDs as being able to deliver good coaching: basic skill training maybe, but not good coaching.
After closely watching your performance, they are good at evaluating you, feeding back and defining the training skill enhancements you need. They try to work out where you have an advantage to push or a weakness to defend. They also watch your opponent's performance and analyse it. They work out your opponent's weaknesses and strengths to best match what you can do to outperform them. You will always find the coaches have their attention focused 100% on the game in hand. The analogy with personal and business coaching is so plain it needs no further explanation.

What to look for in a coach

Relevant experience is essential: experience of the skill that you need to develop. This is not necessarily in your type of organisation. They also need an ability to coach. I was fortunate to receive someone-to-one coaching in speaking German when I was director of a German-owned business. Our tutor was German and we had a few hours a week with her. Her task was difficult. Director's tend to be busy, easily distracted and not that amenable to making fools of themselves – the lessons were conducted in German.
She succeeded admirably because in Germany she trained as a teacher. She knew how to teach. If we didn't do our homework we felt like naughty schoolboys! There has to be a personal chemistry. That doesn't mean you have to like the coach but you do have to listen and accept. The coach needs the communication skills to make you listen and accept when you don't want to.
Finally, the coach needs a broad knowledge. To be able to coach you improve your performance in the face of opposition (competition and customers) the coach needs to have had broad experience. I know a marriage guidance counsellor who went through a divorce as she was doing the training to be a counsellor.
Is it good to pick a coach with experience at failing? Do you think the experience of failing would spur the coach to learn and be fully capable now? I think it is probable. Surely, a coach who has experienced failure is better than one who only has experience of success.

What else can we learn from sports coaches?

There have been spectacular disasters when first-rate players are appointed as coach. It is sad to see the decision makers being so unaware of what they are doing. Being highly talented is not enough; you have to be a good coach too.
"The best coaches recognise they can only give of their best for a part of their client's journey. They know a budding superstar client will outgrow them and start to plan their own replacement as they begin their coaching relationship."
Other coaches are appointed and have a one-track message. That is usually relevant immediately or they would not be appointed. When the situation changes, often by their own success at training that skill, they are ill equipped to take the team further. The team becomes better and better at the one-track skill and is smartly side stepped by their opponents concentrating their efforts in other areas.
A good coach has a strategic breadth of the game. She understands that what is needed will change with time, with opponents and as her client develops. The best coaches recognise they can only give of their best for a part of their client's journey. They know a budding superstar client will outgrow them and start to plan their own replacement as they begin their coaching relationship. They have a lifecycle approach to their clients.

Your training business

Coaching is a skill in itself. It is not sufficient to be good at something. Develop your coaching skills. Never stop learning. You don't want your clients to stop learning and they feel the same about you. Never forget that success comes from a combination of chemistry, knowledge and coaching skill all spiced up with a pinch of luck, a dose of inspiration and a big handful of perseverance.


This article draws a comparison between business and sports coaching. There are lessons to be drawn from the publicly available information on those relationships.
  • Do you provide coaching in a range of skills?
  • Are you an expert in the aspects of coaching itself?
  • Do you have a broad view of the environment in which your clients operate? 
  • Are you coaching them to have the best performance for that environment today?
  • What are your challenges?
Everyone needs to be challenged by an informed outsider. Mentoring is a key skill. I hope you find my challenges of value.
Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop the management of motivation to inspire greater performance. A published author of articles and conference speaker, Stephen delivers workshops on personal, management and leadership skills across the country. It is all about "making people more effective", he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog


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