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Coaching Employees Like It's a Sport

Lessons from original coaches.

Key points

  • Effective coaching can positively change attitudes, knowledge, behaviours, and performance.
  • Coaching should be continuous, have a specific purpose, and be positive and constructive.
  • Coaches can't work in isolation; they need support networks.
Ron Lach / Pexels
Source: Ron Lach / Pexels

When advocating for better performance management, we ask managers to be a "coach" to their employees—borrowing the term from sports. However, it seems that the sports analogy stops there. For example:

  • Do we allow our employees practice time or does it seem to be always game time?
  • Do we have time-outs and team huddles when we need to get back in the game? Or do we just keep pushing?
  • Do we make on-the-fly changes to our lineups if people are having an "off day"? Or do we just discount or even discipline that employee?

We likely don't follow the lessons from sports, but we should. Here's why:

Effective coaching can positively change attitudes, knowledge, behaviours, and performance. Organizations that had highly effective coaching were more likely to have:

  • 30 percent stronger business results.
  • 33 percent more engaged employees.
  • 42 percent higher employee productivity.
  • 75 percent higher effectiveness in hiring, developing, and retaining the right people.

​Gallup outlined the essentials of coaching as frequent, focused, and future-focused. That is, coaching should be continuous, have a specific purpose, and be positive and constructive.

​Now back to the sports analogy:


Where business leaders may deliver feedback once or twice a year, sports coaches don't even wait until the end of a game. They provide feedback before, during, and after the game.


During gameplay, a coach only has seconds to provide feedback. Therefore, they need to be highly skilled in knowing the right message and the right delivery to ensure increased motivation and/or effective behaviour change.


Sports coaches focus on the positive. They celebrate the victories, we interview the MVP or the captain. They hardly focus their time on the person with the most errors, and when they do, they ask about how they will change or win the next time.

Sports provide us with other potential lessons we, in business, need to learn:

  • It's not about choosing the best player on the team to be the coach. We need to choose the person who is best with people.
  • ​If the team fails, the coach is fired, rather than individual team members.
  • ​Coaches don't show up only when there is a loss or a win. They are there continuously.
  • Even though the coach is always there, a coach isn't on the field micro-managing the play nor are they playing the game with the team.
  • Although it's always about the win, it's not about everyone scoring goals. Some people are there to provide assists or defence.
  • Coaches are internal to the team (not external hires). Sometimes a sports consultant comes in to try and help an athlete with the yips, but a truly effective coach really needs to know the individual, the team, the opponents, and the game. Scientific research supports this finding that internal coaches are seven times more effective than external ones.
  • ​Coaches don't work in isolation. There is an equipment manager who is helping ensure equipment/tools are available, effective, and perhaps cutting-edge (IT, supply chain, operations). The special teams coach comes in during rare events or special circumstances (HR, talent management, project managers). GMs and owners (senior leadership) keep track of the bigger picture as well as give them input and coaching of their own. And finally, sometimes there is a junior or assistant coach who is ensuring training is organized and fills in when required (supervisors, team leads). ​

So if we truly want our managers to be like sports coaches, what do we need to do?


  • Free up managers' time from administration to be able to coach continuously.
  • Surround managers with their own personal support team.
  • Hire external coaches only as "special teams" or to train internal coaches.


  • Ask yourself: What tasks are preventing you from coaching? Can you delegate them?
  • Determine if you are playing the game or directing the game. If you are playing, shift your goals to make the team more self-sufficient.
  • Be deliberate in what you want the employee to achieve and tailor the message in a way that will best motivate them.


Bersin, 2012

Gallup. Re-engineering Performance Management.…

The Effectiveness of Workplace Coaching: A Meta-Analysis.

Global Human Capital Trends, 2015.…

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