5 business lessons from sports coaching

Top coaches have mastered the arts of motivation and communication.

by Damian Hughes
Last Updated: 11 May 2018

The similarities between sports and business are generally overplayed. Yes, both depend on performance, motivation and strategy, but the free market is rather more complex and uncertain than a football pitch. A working knowledge of biomechanics and a penchant for discus are unlikely to contribute much to your bottom line.   

This doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned, however. As a former Manchester United football coach and HR director at Unilever, Damian Hughes is particularly well-placed to see what they are.

MT asked him to distil some critical lessons from elite coaching. Here’s what he had to say.


Faster, Higher, Stronger. The Olympic credo is often used to describe the games’ purpose of encouraging us all to push beyond our physical and psychological limits.

Whilst the business equivalent may often be characterised as Cheaper, Leaner, Quicker, there are many lessons from elite sport which we can adopt within our own working lives.

In my own work, as an adviser to sporting and business leaders, I have witnessed five principles which elite coaches consistently employ to drive engagement, develop cohesion and help performance to be sustained under pressure.

1. Simplicity

Great sporting leaders strive for the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement of their intentions.

Early on in his illustrious career, Steve Redgrave was openly dismissive of the idea that he needed to incorporate weight training into his regime. ‘If I wanted to lift weights, I would have chosen to be a weightlifter,’ he scoffed.  

Then Jurgen Grobler arrived from East Germany with a brief to deliver a culture of professionalism to the amateur sport of rowing. To convince Redgrave to adopt these new sessions into his training, Grobler asked a simple question: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’

Soon after, Redgrave began to see the difference increased power developed within the weight room could make to his speed in the boat. He became one of the most committed trainers in the gym.

2. Thinking

Psychologically it’s much more satisfying to find the solution to a problem yourself than have someone else solve it for you.  British Cycling - a gold medal factory - does this by appointing each athlete as a monarch.

‘Each athlete is appointed as king or queen of their discipline, with the performance support staff being there as "aides and advisers" to help and guide them,’ explains cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford.

The kings or queens are able to pick and choose where they get their help from – but ultimately, if they do not meet their agreed performance targets they can be overthrown and replaced.

‘We put the riders in the middle; they have the ownership and responsibility for thinking about what they’re doing whilst we’re just the minions around them giving them expert advice. It seems to work,’ Brailsford added, with some understatement.

3. Emotions

When we come under pressure, our emotional brain engages in a contest with its rational counterpart. The emotional brain is five times stronger and unless it is controlled, it takes over. The consequence of this is clear: we become erratic and unpredictable, forgetting the best laid plans.

Great coaches manage this neurological conflict to the best effect. The USA boxing coach, Emanuel Steward, explained to me that to help people perform under pressure, he adopts a two-step approach, which reinforces this two-brains-in-one model. ‘To engage you have to contain and then explain. It doesn’t work in any other order,’ he said.

To do this requires what you may call ‘soft skills’ but they are anything but ‘soft’ in their application.

4. Practical

‘If you can’t explain what you are doing to your mother, maybe you don’t really understand it,’ Former US secretary of state Colin Powell once asserted

Great leaders are able to explain themselves in clear, understandable language. In 1980, Peter Coe once advised his son, Sebastian, that he had to maintain contact with the athletes at the front of the 1500 metres final. ‘You sit so tight into that action you can smell Steve Ovett's armpits,’ he told him.

He knew that speaking in practical terms is the only way to ensure that our ideas will mean the same thing to everyone listening.

5. Stories

In July 2005, Sebastian Coe delivered an emotional story to the International Olympic Committee members about the powerful inspiration the Olympic Games had been to him - and would be to future generations. The end of his presentation went as follows. ‘On behalf of the youth of today, the athletes of tomorrow, and the Olympians of the future,’ said Coe, ‘we humbly submit the bid of London 2012.’

Paris's presentation had ended with an entirely different story.

Paris needs the Games. Paris wants the Games. Paris loves the Games.

Paris’s presentation was not about appealing to the positive emotions of the Olympic Committee. It was simply about Paris. The rest is history.

Damian Hughes is a former HR Director at Unilever and Manchester United football coach. His book The Winning Mindset is published by Macmillan.

Image credit: red mango/Shutterstock

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