Transferring Ideas from Sports to Management

Assorted sporting equipment including; tennis ball, american football, football, badminton racquet, tennis racquet and shuttlecocks.

The fundamental job of the person who takes the helm of a team is to make the team’s performance superior to the simple sum of the performances of each team member. To succeed, a coach needs to know how to create the necessary contextual conditions; use appropriate criteria in selecting team members; and organize and manage work so that each member is willing and able to fully realize their potential, and knows how to go about it. The sports context, just like the business world, shows us that it’s not enough to have the best human resources that the organization can afford; instead, the true source of success is the ability to hit on the optimal combination for these resources. This depends a great deal on the characteristics, decisions, and actions of the person in charge of the team.

There is a growing propensity among companies to manage processes, to set up inter-functional teams, and to use team-based evaluation and remuneration systems. All this makes it increasingly critical for managers to be able to create team spirit that facilitates and supports inter- and intra-functional integration. The foundations for this integration are, essentially, interaction (i.e. managing communication and information exchange) and a climate of collaboration.1

People who lead teams can foster integration by acting on values, structures, processes, and people.2  The number, complexity, and multi-faceted nature of these variables suggests that we should investigate team building and team management processes in their original context, i.e. team sports, from which managerial studies borrowed most of these ideas.

For many managers, the biggest challenge is to incentivize their collaborators in ways that don’t involve money, instead focusing on other motivational levers. In the sports world, that’s exactly one of the problems that coaches face, because they’re not the ones who decide how much to pay athletes. So coaches make an interesting case study for exploring how to motivate collaborators without using monetary compensation; indeed, the lessons learned on this topic from sports can be invaluable to business managers.

Coaches and managers have important things in common. Both roles have a more pressing need for clarity on leadership issues than ever before, in light of the strategic and organizational complexity that sports and firms find themselves contending with. Given the above, there are several aspects to consider when comparing sports and business teams: goals, structures, rules of operation, timing, and resources. The more similar these variables are, the more it makes sense to draw parallels between the two worlds; otherwise any comparison proves potentially superficial, ineffective, or even misleading.

What characteristics of a business team make it most comparable to a sports team?

1 The team has a clear, visible, direct, and often quantifiable impact on organizational performance.

2 Team members need innate ability, in addition to powerful motivation, to achieve a positive performance outcome.

3 The team is subject to intense pressure regarding its short-term (even weekly) performance, in addition to pressure generated by long-term results (for example, linked to a project or a


4 Team members are in direct competition for more resources and greater visibility, although they have to cooperate and collaborate to succeed.

5 Positive and negative results have a powerful effect on the team “climate.”

6 The team is perceived as a separate entity from the rest of the organization because of the different way it functions, its responsibilities, and the powerful impact that it has on results.

7 The team has strong bargaining power with respect to its parent organization.

8 Non-monetary incentives are a major necessity for team members.


  1. Kahn, K.B. (1996) “Interdepartmental Integration: A Definition with Implications for Product Development Performance,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 13, 2, pp. 137–51.
  2. Rouziès, D., Anderson, E., Kohli, A.K., Michaels, R.E., Weitz, B.A. and Zoltners, A.A. (2005) “Sales and Marketing Integration: A Proposed Framework,” Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 25, 2, pp. 113–

This is an edited extract from Leading Teams: Tools and Techniques For Successful Team Leadership From The Sports World. It is published by Wiley.

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