Leadership Lessons from Sports Coaches

05 Mar,2020


By Prabhakar Mundkur


It might not be a coincidence that we use sports terminology in everyday management in our companies. We talk about a ‘pitch’, to a client, or we ask ourselves what is the ‘gameplan’ or when appropriate we say someone ‘dropped the ball’ when we see an error of judgment. Obviously, there is a lot to learn from the field of sports management.

And interesting area of sport management are the  sports coaches themselves and their style of team management. For example, if we were to look at some of our past coaches for the Indian cricket team, there might be one crucial difference between Anil Kumble and Ravi Shastri when it comes to evaluating coaches. And that is the question of ‘who is the boss?’ Kumble thought he was the boss, but Shastri thinks it is the captain of the team that is the boss.

If press reports are to believed, Kumble’s pep talk after losing the Champions Trophy final against Pakistan didn’t go down well with the team which might have led to his final ouster. Although Kumble was not rude, he is supposed to have mentioned how wides and no-balls cost India dear and how the bowlers were not able to execute their game plan. While Kohli might have agreed with Kumble on how the team could have done better, he is known to have gone on to give a positive spin with his Captain’s pep talk by mentioning how the team played well to reach the final.

In many ways, Kolhi acted like many leaders. Point out the mistakes to the team, but make sure that the team is not demotivated for future games and spur them on to do better in the future.

Paul Barron, goalkeeping coach at Newcastle United, is an advocate of relationship coaching and once described his philosophy as

:: They forget what you say to them.

:: They forget what you do with them.

:: But they never forget how you made them feel!


So, perhaps, it is not just about Kumble said, but it is about how he made them feel. And obviously he didn’t make them feel good after the defeat in the Champions Trophy. Relationship coaching is about coaches connecting with their players, getting to the real pulse of the team, and releasing a powerful collective emotional energy. This very often is the edge that allows teams to survive the bad times and go on to remarkable achievements.

Athlete-coach wars have been on as long as one can remember. Andy Murray for example re-hired Ivan Lendl after the pair decided to call it quits.

If there are no codes of conduct formulated to protect coaches and athletes, then there is risk of a breach in the athlete-coach relationship. So if some of the reports in the press are to believe about Kumble and Kohli falling apart because of a discipline issue, or because Kumble wouldn’t let the players go out shopping for example, this is a fault of not laying down an athlete-coach code. The code in this case would have determined who was wrong and who was right.

Coaches all desire strong team discipline, but do we really understand what that means? Are we willing to do what it takes? Athletes also crave discipline. They crave rules and boundaries regardless of how they may rail against them. Structure and a set of team rules, lets them know exactly what is acceptable and what is not for all aspects of team membership.

You’re NOT a good coach when you call an athlete out in front of the team and tell that athlete, “You absolutely suck! The questions this raises is

Does it motivate an individual to want to work even harder to improve?

Does it help that individual to feel good about themselves?

It;s very much the same in an office atmosphere.

Shastri plays it right when he pats the team on the back when the team wins. A win is a win and needs to be celebrated and is a strong motivation to keep winning.

According to various individuals from the BCCI and CAC as well as the committee of administrators, one big point of difference between Kohli and Kumble was who was the boss.

Shastri is more than happy to let the captain take charge. “It’s always the captain’s team and it is the leader who calls the shots. That’s how it has always worked. A coach’s role, effectively speaking, is to stay in the background and let the onus be on the players. The coach and support staff’s role is to get the players in the most brilliant frame of mind to execute things and if done effectively, it brings enjoyment to the player’s game.”

You’re NOT a good coach if you think that your most important job as a coach is to win games. If winning is the primary goal as a coach, he may have significantly lost his way and as a consequence, he might actually win less! The mission of a coach is to teach the team and help them grow as individuals so that they become better people in the world, both on and off the field. Good coaches teach their athletes how to be better people in the world and they use their sport as nothing more than a vehicle for this teaching. The winning and losing outcomes are completely secondary to the teaching of valuable life lessons.


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