5 things businesses should NEVER copy from sports – and 3 they should

Many companies look to sports for cues on motivations and performance and star athletes and coaches and make big bucks as corporate speakers. There is this unquestioned assumption that if you’re successful in sports, you can teach workplaces something that will make them more effective.

I’d like to challenge that assumption :)

In fact, I believe there are so many fundamental differences between running a business and (say) coaching a football team that it becomes almost impossible to transfer any principles or practices.

Here are 5 things businesses should definitely not copy from sports:

5: Abrasive coaches

It seems like sports team coaches are given license to be complete jerks. They can throw tantrums, yell at referees, badmouth opposing players (or even their own players) in public – and be celebrated for all of this because it shows “passion”.

Nobody wants that kind of behavior from their manager at work. Steve Ballmer tried this sort of thing as CEO of Microsoft and has been deservedly ridiculed for it.

4: Adulation for star players
Sports teams have a few stars and many supporting players. In a workplace you need everyone to perform at their best.

3: Intense competition
It’s a common belief that competition makes people perform better, but research shows that it’s actually the other way around – competition makes people achieve worse results.

2: Rewards for results
Athletes are almost always rewarded for results – win that tournament and there’s prize money. Again, research shows that bonuses in the workplace make people less productive on any task that requires creativity and independent thinking.

1: Focus only on the next game
In sports, the focus is often only on the next game. In business, you need to be able to think long-term and create success not just for this week but for years in the future.

Each of those 5 practices are very common in sports but just don’t work in business.  That being said, there are a few practices in sports that businesses should absolutely emulate. Here are three:

3: Make time for training
Athletes spend many more hours training for matches than actually in matches. This gives them a chance to improve their skills and a risk-free environment where they can try out new approaches and plays and see how they work.

In the workplace however, there is rarely a chance to try out new ideas without risking failure. Employees are always playing for points and never playing to learn.

2: Celebrate success
Athletes are very good at celebrating wins. They even celebrate partial progress towards a win when they score a goal or similar.

In many workplaces, success is met with a shrug and wins are rarely celebrated.

1: Include restitution
Every successful athlete know that you get stronger by training and THEN RESTING. Without restitution, you’re actually just continually weakening yourself.

Workplaces on the other hand consistently underestimate the need for restitution. Employees are worked hard constantly and breaks and time off work are seen as a necessary evil. In fact, employees are implicitly told that they can show “commitment” by giving up weekends and vacations and working more hours.

There is no reason why we should try to follow the lead of athletes and coaches in our efforts to create better and more successful workplaces. Many of the practices from sports just won’t work in a workplace – you could even argue that many of them don’t even work that well in sports.

And don’t even get me started on copying practices from the military :)

Your take

Has your company ever had a star coach or an athlete come in and speak? What did they say, that you found useful? What do you think workplaces should or shouldn’t copy from sports? Write a comment and let me know your take.

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3 thoughts on “5 things businesses should NEVER copy from sports – and 3 they should”

  1. Alex,
    I’m so glad this was pointed out – I’ve run across a lot of advice that can tell you to run your business like a sports team. Not using bonuses to motivate success really stood out to me – it seems like an easy way to only motivate using money, not conducive to fostering engaged employees who want to stick around.
    I do think there are aspect of coaching players that can be applied to coaching employees, but without the aggression that we sometimes expect from sport’s coaches.
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Alexander,

    No doubt, often too much is made of what business can learn from sport,

    However, I think it also depends a whole lot on which sport. Take ‘real’ football (I.e. Soccer), where Germany recently became World Champions – and before that Spain were World Champions – both teams with management that has built for the long term, teams that worked as teams without a top star, and where coaches were measured.

    Also, I’ve tried to work in non-sport environments where there was too little focus on performance and competence – with the result that whilst it was a cosy workplace, it also attracted mediocre talent – so, I believe focussing on building a winning team and looking to win the prize are areas where many businesses can be inspired by sport.

    But understanding the context is important – just from the World of sports, there is a big difference from managing a team of top-performers in a top team often with big egos – to managing mediocre players that may lack self-confidence. I.e. A basic understanding of the context should make a big difference to how management is performed – alas, a lot of things therefore cannot be directly transferred from one team to the next, sport or non-sport…

  3. A fourth sports approach to take is building a team. Similar to the military where everyone has specific roles sports teams strive to have top performance in each position contributing to the overall goal of winning. This translates well to companies that build a team spirit based on buy in to the company goals and culture.

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