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What I Learned About Great Coaching…From Watching Football

by Alok Sawhney on

A few years ago, I was attending a conference of executive coaches when a keynote speaker caught my attention.  This gray-haired, seasoned executive coach suggested that we should not use the scientific model to benchmark our success as coaches, but rather look to athletics.

In sports there is a clear winner, teamwork is essential, and talent acquisition and the development of skill are vital.  The keynote speaker pointed out that business executives and organizations have a lot to learn from coaches in professional sports – it turns out, coaching an all-star athlete and an account executive involve similar key behaviors.

The Idea:

With this in mind, I decided to pick a sport, look at the coaches most admired for their success, and study their behaviors to better understand what exactly they did that set them, and therefore their teams, apart.  I ultimately chose the NFL because American football is one of the most popular global pastimes, a huge business, and runs on fierce competition.

I studied the behaviors of two dedicated, innovative, and remarkably accomplished coaches: Bill Belichick and the late Bill Walsh.  Belichick has won five Super Bowls and has appeared in the most championship games ever.  Walsh led the San Francisco 49ers in the 1980s to three Super Bowl championships and created the “West Coast Offense,” which was the heart of his team’s competitive edge.

The Takeaways:

Never Stop Being a Student

Both coaches possess a superb attention to detail.  According to his biography, Walsh was known for his late nights in his office, eating cold pizza and scrutinizing films of his opponents to find areas of weakness.  He was incredibly conscientious, and the same goes for Belichick.  It is rumored during the football season, Belichik sleeps in his office five nights a week.  He routinely has film viewing sessions with his players to point out all the areas in which they can improve.

Walsh and Belichik’s “continual learning” approach has driven their success.  Both are fanatical students of the game and are revered for their football knowledge.

Get the Right Players for Your Team

Another tenet for both coaches: it’s about having the right team members, not the best players.  Belichick and the Patriots have mastered how to evaluate talent and consider it essential for players to work in their “system”.  They focus on what a player can do well in their system and how that player can enhance it with his individual strengths.

This is a big shift from an average team.  Belichik and Walsh are outliers in their aptitude for spotting talented team members, developing them, and fitting them into a cohesive system.  This is the same concept Jim Collins outlined in his popular business leadership book, Good to Great: have the right people on the team and have them in the right roles.

Tell It Like It Is

Both coaches are candid, direct and to the point.  Belichik’s mantra for keeping his team focused on their priorities is “Do Your Job”.  While this may seem harsh, for his players, it translates to completing assignments to the best of one’s ability and trusting your teammates will do the same.

Both tenured coaches use a no-nonsense, yet respectful, style.  Like bosses, coaches have a huge impact on a professional’s life – for better or worse.  Both Walsh and Belichik are able to cut to the chase while remaining fair.  They carry themselves with dignity in spite of difficult losses, on and off the field.  As professionals, they are exemplary role models for their players and fellow coaches.

In business today, executives do not always have the same luxuries at their disposal as an NFL team.  At times, they do not even get to pick who their players are. The next time you find yourself in a coaching meeting, you can still use what the Belichik and Walsh taught:  pay attention to the details, focus on the person’s strengths, and discover what he or she can do to help the team.  Even more importantly: be straightforward and respectful; our influence goes a long way.  It is easy to remember our worst bosses as well as our best.  Let’s strive for the latter.

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