When it comes to workplace stress, prevention is the best medicine.
What teams in the workplace can learn from teams in sport
Looking at the factors that make up high-performance sports teams, and how it applies to the world of business.
Research in sports psychology can do far more than help us understand the makings of a winning team. This growing field also empowers countries and coaches to increase their efficacy by applying the tactics of other academic disciplines to their strategies, using insights drawn from sociology, neuropsychology, and behavioral science to create consistently high-performing teams.
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of overlap between what we know about workplace teams and what we know about sports teams. But when it comes to conducting research and sharing lessons learned, there's not a lot of crossover between the fields - pun intended. We'll be diving deeper into this topic in an upcoming video series we're producing with an internationally recognised expert in sports psychology - Stewart Cotterill, author of Team Psychology in Sports, and previous psychologist of the England national cricket team. As a teaser for the video series, I'd like to highlight a few of the lessons we can transplant from the world of sports into the world of business, and why we ought to be encouraging more cross-pollination between the two.
Continuous measurement - continuous improvement.
It's no wonder that sports analytics has become a multibillion-dollar industry - when teams use data-driven strategies to make decisions, they naturally impact more positive win rates. I’ll be focusing more on the on-field, player-related data, than opposition data or game simulation etc. In a data-driven team, everything about an individual player's performance is tracked, both in training sessions, on game day, and in between. Crucially, the underlying purpose of this detailed analysis isn’t to penalize players with their own performance data - it’s to help them better understand themselves and each other, and to identify areas for improvement. There’s a symbiotic relationship between players and their club, and that sense of mutual understanding is why you don’t see the same kind of suspicion about employee-analytics in workplaces.
Whether or not an organization can successfully pull something like this off is completely dependent on their culture, and their priorities. While both involve data-gathering technology and data analytics, giving an employee a Fitbit so they can monitor their health is not the same thing as installing spyware on their laptop to track their screen-time and count keystrokes.
Performance starts at home.
In sports, tracking player health doesn't stop when they leave the locker room and head home - sleep and nutrition are one of the most important determinants of player health, and neither of those happen on the sports field. While the office is a different arena (another pun intended), performance in the workplace is just as driven by your life outside work. This is why I would encourage managers to engage with their teams about their health in a more proactive way, with an emphasis on self-care strategies that will improve not only their performance but also their sense of wellbeing overall. Forward-thinking companies have tried various strategies to improve employee health, whether it be through behavioral science strategies like nudging and reward programs or company perks like gym memberships.
Team Performance; from the sports field to the workplace.
If we want to draw on sports psychology to improve our workplaces, we need to take a look at the characteristics of a winning team*:
There’s a direct correlation between how cohesive teams are and how well they perform. Even as a spectator you can sense which teams have this, in the way they play, celebrate and interact off the field. Every other factor that makes a team great relies on cohesion. It’s everything, and smart coaches focus on it from day one. In the workplace (and especially the virtual workplace) there’s a strong correlation between team cohesion, team satisfaction, and team success. The research is clear on that, which is why we place such a high priority on measuring team cohesion with Perflo.
To expand on the first factor, winning teams have complete clarity on their mission both from manager and club, beyond just “let’s go win tournaments” - Italy’s road to winning the Euros is a great example of this. Everyone is clear on the direction of the manager and there is alignment on what’s expected of everyone in order to achieve their goals. This collective focus breeds a powerful force of winners.
It's painfully evident when players on the field don’t trust one another - you can see it in their style of play - and there's a reason that the trust fall is the quintessential team building activity. In some sports, the reliance on your team members to catch you when you fall isn’t even metaphorical. Whether it be a line out in Rugby or a cheerleading routine - teammates need to trust that they won’t let them break a limb (or their neck) on the way down from a jump.
On the sports field, losing and making mistakes are unavoidable realities, even for those at the very top of the game. As a rule, professional athletes are naturally competitive - a keen desire to win is just part of the athlete psyche - which makes losing all the more painful for them. How this sense of failure is handled by the team - as individual players and as a collective - is an extremely important factor in the makings of a good team. Accepting and overcoming failure is a team sport, and players will only be able to process these feelings together if they are in an environment of psychological safety. (have a look at this example after an England player missed the winning penalty in the Final of the Euros) Off the sports field, the importance of fostering psychological safety in the workplace is well-established, as research has consistently demonstrated the impact it has on organizational performance and innovation.
As a spectator, you might have heard players or managers screaming at one another during the game, or right after. It can seem hostile, even vicious - but chances are that the shouting isn’t being taken personally. It’s not meant to be, either: the beauty of feedback in sports is that criticism can be brutal without being personal and that it’s delivered with the ultimate goal of improvement in mind. On the sports field, mistakes are noticed immediately, so the feedback loops are instant and improvements have to happen in real-time. This isn’t the case in business, where it can take months before a performance issue is uncovered. By that time, it’s usually too late to fix it.
No matter whether it was a win or a loss, top teams will re-watch their games as individuals and as a team, in order to self-assess and identify areas for improvement. This team trait is found in elite military teams as well, after a mission, they review every move and conduct a lessons learned exercise. The agile movement has pioneered ‘retrospectives’ into the world of business (although primarily in software development), however, there is still a growing need for a better process whereby teams can easily and productively self-assess on a high frequency.
How do tier 3 teams beat league champions? Well I don’t think any analyst can be confident in a logical explanation for some of sport’s greatest upsets, but one thing is for sure - they believed they could. There are some amazing and wholesome underdog tales in sports, whether an individual Olympian or a national team - these tales prove that ‘impossible’ is just a word in the dictionary. (The rise of Leicester City from small club to champions is an inspiring example of the power of growth mindset)
Rest (work-life balance)
For athletes, resting is just as important as training. It’s mandatory - at times, coaches have to force players to rest, as part of a long-term strategy to conserve energy and avoid burnout. Prevention is always the better option, which is why post-match recovery is given priority in the sporting world. In the workplace, rest mandates tend to happen post-burnout. As we all know, by then it’s too late and attrition rates are likely climbing.
A good manager is a great coach.
Isn’t it interesting that in sports the manager is called ‘coach’ by the players and in business, we keep seeing the words “managers need to become coaches” - surely there are some lessons here to be learned. Something all winning teams have in common is the relationship between the coach and the team. I touched on the feedback element earlier, which is obviously the hallmark of a great coach, but I’d like to focus on what some might call ‘the soft stuff’ - which is hardly soft when it comes to the impact it has.
Leadership Empathy: While there are many elements that make up a great coach, perhaps none are more crucial than having the ability to connect with, understand, and empower their players. Jurgen Klopp is a master at this and this trait has surely accounted for a lot of his success in Football.
Mutual Respect: Regardless of whatever minor disagreements or public feuds might mark their history, winning teams have a profound and unmistakable sense of respect for their managers. This is especially apparent in teams that have had years-long winning streaks. Sir Alex Ferguson is a prime example, a man respected by both friend and foe. The same respect however must be returned, and when players see or feel that their coach loses respect for them, they end up leaving the club.
With these two traits covered, the coach-player relationship can blossom into a safe space, and allow for the most crucial, impactful job a coach is contracted to do - confidence building. Beyond the need to inspire and motivate the team as a whole, building individual players’ confidence is paramount for coaches to get right in order to build winning teams. Countless wonder stories are told by players and coaches alike, of how they were in the trenches emotionally and mentally, and their coach pulled them out and slowly built up their self-belief off the field, which in turn improved their performance on the field.
It’s no surprise to me that many former coaches have gone on to become wildly successful business leaders - I can’t say I’ve heard many stories of the reverse though. Bill Campbell is the perfect example of a successful transition from the sports field into the business world. Before he became one of the greatest leadership coaches of our time, Campbell was the coach of a Varsity football team. I’ve gained much from reading Campbell’s story and taking his lessons in management to heart. Business management, to Campbell, is people management; leadership isn’t about what you can make people do, but how you make people feel. Leaders who figure this out early on, are the ones to find genuine and holistic success.
To conclude, there are clearly many lessons and attributes we can derive from sports when it comes to team performance in the workplace, and we will be diving deeper into them in our upcoming video series titled; “sports psychology applied to workplace teams”, featuring renowned Sports Psychologist - Stewart Cotterill. Subscribe to our blog to get notified when this exciting series is released!
*It’s worth noting that a team can possess all of these qualities and still not be a top-performing team, in addition to a fantastic team spirit and winning mentality, teams do need sufficient resources in order to acquire and retain top talent, management, facilities and of course fan base.