The link between sport and business is well-established, so much so that it risks becoming a bit of a tired cliché. If you follow sports coaches on Twitter, it won’t be long before you notice them sharing their recent reads, which often include any number of business books. In turn, this has led to a bit of a backlash against both this genre of books and the application of business principles to sport (or vice versa).
This pushback, however, may come at the expense of some important development and thinking opportunities for sports coaches, as there is significant potential for coaches to pick up key insights from business literature. In Prepared, the latest book from Paul Gamble (which is both excellent and highly recommended), he explores key pillars of sports coaching excellence, including creating an environment for excellence, leading and coaching others, and managing ourselves. Gamble identifies that coaching is not domain-specific; instead, it relates to being able to support and develop humans toward fulfilling their potential—be that in sport, business, or life. If we take out technical and contextual knowledge—which for sports coaches, is specific to their sport and/or event—then there are indeed commonalities in approach (which is why the skills and approach of a coach can be applicable across a variety of domains, as identified by the Harvard Business Review).
It’s not only Gamble who sees the value in “borrowing” from the business world; the Australian Institute of Sport, for example, has a partnership with Melbourne Business School to deliver professional development for coaches and performance directors. There is also an ever-increasing body of research discussing the bidirectional link between business and sport. In 2010, Robert Weinberg and Matthew McDermott explored the common factors for success in sports and business organizations, identifying key themes such as leadership, group (or team) cohesion, and communication as crucial across both domains.
Other researchers have explored organizational psychology—a discipline typically utilized within the business realm—within sport. One such study, published in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology in 2012, identified conflict management, along with emotional control and expression, as crucial factors in optimizing performance within sporting organizations. Leadership within sport is also well-examined, with a body of research stretching back more than 30 years, and again drawing parallels to—and borrowing heavily from—business domains. Finally, management is an important part of sporting success, with performance management—the process by which athlete, coach, and support team drive success—an important part of athlete outcomes; increasingly, coaches have to manage more than just the athlete in this process.
Master of Business Administration
It’s not just sport that borrows from business; business also borrows from sport. Graham Jones, a sports psychologist, wrote about his transition to business consulting in 2002, identifying key similarities between the two domains. Dr. Sandy Gordon built on this in a 2014 paper, writing that evidence suggested that business coaches and sports coaches had a lot to learn from each other. The research base here is broad and well-established; Ievleva and Terry, in a 2008 article, wrote about applying sports psychology to business, while Graham Jones (along with colleague Kirsty Spooner) identified key similarities between coaching high achievers in sport and business. Finally, the business literature has long drawn from the sporting research, perhaps best exemplified by a 2001 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.”
This brings us to The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. In the book, Kaufman aims to provide a high-level business education—similar to that found in formal Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses—but without the hefty price tag. To do this, Kaufman aims to use mental models, which he defines as concepts that represent our understanding of how things work.I want to focus on how we use business principles to enhance athlete development as opposed to making more money, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
I find mental models really useful, as they allow us to develop mental shortcuts (often termed “heuristics”) and also serve as a way for teams to view things in a similar manner and work toward a common goal. Kaufman’s book is split into three main sections:
- How Businesses Work, which explains how businesses operate and how we can improve their effectiveness. This part of the book is of the least interest to us in coaching terms, because I want to focus on how we use business principles to enhance athlete development as opposed to making more money; consequently, I’ll largely skip over this section.
- How People Work, which is highly applicable. Kaufman writes that “to understand how businesses work, you need a firm understanding of how people make decisions, act on those decisions, and communicate with others.” This is also true within the sports coaching domain; we need to understand why both coaches and athletes act in the ways they do, and how best to communicate to create influence. Having the best training program in the world is not that useful if your athletes don’t listen to you, and this section explores the importance of communication.
- How Systems Work, which introduces the concept of complex systems, as well as making systemic changes. Again, this is an area of ever-increasing interest in sport, with systems thinking and design becoming increasingly well-studied across sporting contexts.
1. How Businesses Work
A key insight from this section of the book, directly applicable to coaching, is the iteration cycle. This is the process by which businesses improve their offerings (products, services, etc.) over time, and it is comprised of six key steps. While used within business, it is also highly applicable to how coaches may update their coaching practice by changing their overarching coaching philosophy or training program. Let’s take a look at the six key steps of the iteration cycle from a coaching perspective:
- Watch – Understand what works, what doesn’t, and how your athletes respond to the program.
- Ideate – What could you improve, and how? What innovations and recent changes, in research, technology, or facility access, can you make the most of to improve how you develop athletes?
- Guess – Make an informed decision. Based on what you see and what you know, which of the potential changes you could make will have the greatest positive effect?
- Which – Decide which change(s) to make.
- Act – Make the change.
- Measure – Determine whether the change had any measurable effect. Should you continue down this path or reject the idea?
This cycle is always occurring, such that once we have measured the outcome of a change, we return to the watch phase…which we then use to inform our next change, and so on. By using the iteration cycle, we can constantly look to move toward best practice, while analyzing what is and isn’t effective. A related model is incremental augmentation, where the iteration cycle is used to continuously make small improvements on the training plan in an ongoing manner.
Another important mental model introduced in this section of the book is that of relative importance testing, used in business to understand what features customers want in a product. This model suggests that customers won’t accept trade-offs unless they’re forced to make a decision, at which point they will select the next best alternative. As an example, we can take the early-model iPhone camera: It wasn’t a great camera, but customers accepted it—and the trade-off—because it reduced the number of items they were required to carry and allowed them to store and access their pictures instantly and upload and share them efficiently.
Developing training programs and plans is all about making trade-offs; it’s difficult to develop numerous physical qualities at once, for example, or have a competition schedule that is absolutely perfect. Instead, we have to look for the next best alternative, the plan or program that satisfies most of our key requirements without too many negative trade-offs.We have to look for the ‘next best alternative,’ the plan or program that satisfies most of our key requirements without too many negative trade-offs, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Finally, another useful mental model is that of the minimally economically viable offer, or MEVO. This represents a prototype that can be sold to a customer, from which feedback can be collected to either determine that the product isn’t worth developing further or kick-start the iteration cycle. Applying this to coaching, we often look to put together the “perfect” training program—I know I do. Instead, perhaps we might start with a MEVO-inspired plan: What are the absolutely minimally necessary aspects I need in my plan?
You can then refine this simple framework, either in advance by adding more sessions/sections based on what the athlete has done previously, or on a daily iteration basis informed by how the athlete is responding. A MEVO-approach highlights simplicity and necessity first, before adding the extra bits later. Related to this is opportunity cost: because we can’t do everything, anything we choose to do prevents us from doing something else. So, the things we choose to do must be effective and better than what we’re leaving out.
2. How People Work
The first key mental model introduced here is that of a guiding structure; essentially, the structure of your environment (or that of the athletes you coach) is the largest determinant of behavior. As a result, if you seek to produce a specific behavior—either in yourself or in those you coach—setting up the environment to best support and drive that behavior is crucial.
Elite coaches often highlight the importance of environment; for example, in a study from Australia on serial winning coaches, the participants identified the environment that they created for their athletes—and in which they worked themselves—as a key part of their success. The study spoke in detail about developing sufficient challenges and setting high expectations. Alongside this, Kaufman writes that we should aim to remove tension within environments to enable the behaviors we want. If we want our athletes to do a specific strength exercise after a running session, they are far more likely to do it if the equipment is close by rather than a 10-minute walk away.
Similarly, behavioral rules in the environment can reinforce positive behaviors and reduce negative ones. The example used in the book is that of the sterile cockpit, borrowed from aviation; here, pilots are required to avoid any nonessential conversation when below 10,000 feet, so that they can focus on the key processes and steps associated with landing the plane. An example from sport might be a rule that does not allow negative language (or moaning) about decisions that the athlete cannot affect or alter—focusing instead on what they can control.
This section of Kaufman’s book also introduces a variety of cognitive biases and thinking traps we need to be aware of:
- Pattern matching – Our brains search for patterns in everything, so they can develop mental shortcuts. This is negative when it comes to thinking, because we might be over-interpreting and spotting a pattern when one isn’t actually there. It is therefore important to continually question whether an identified pattern is actually present.
- Pattern interpretation – Similar to the previous example, our brain uses previous information and experiences to make quick decisions. This is most obvious when we first meet someone; we often decide whether we like someone or not in the first few seconds. In sport, we might have a gut feeling that a plan or decision is wrong, but we need to question whether this is just our brains making a split-second judgment based on limited information.
- Loss aversion – This thinking trap states that we respond to threats of loss more readily than the possibility of gain. For example, if we are consistently selected for national teams, we might be less willing to take a different approach in training in case we lose our place on the team; ignoring the fact that we might actually perform better as a result. The key question here is “Am I avoiding this behavior because I am overly concerned with what I might lose?”
- Absence blindness – Here, we can’t identify what we can’t see. A great sporting example of this is that we might have a training program that has a high risk of injury, but because of a variety of factors (including luck), we haven’t had an injury yet. This does not mean, however, that the training program is either effective or safe.
- Locus of control – This thinking trap is really useful for athletes who suffer with anxiety around competition; focus on what you can control and influence, and not the rest. You can’t influence or control your competitors, so don’t waste valuable time and mental energy worrying about them. I once read a book by one of the Navy SEALs on the Bin Laden mission, and he wrote about focusing on his “three-foot box”—essentially, anything he could touch. If it was outside of that, he couldn’t influence it, so he didn’t worry about it.
The latter part of this section focuses on working with others. As a coach, your aim is to improve the performance of the athletes you work with; as a result, you put together a training and performance plan, and you need them to follow the plan. This requires you to wield power, which Kaufman defines as the ability to influence the actions of other people.Compulsion is a poor strategy. Instead, developing the ability to positively influence others represents a crucial part of coaching development, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
There are two fundamental forms of power: influence and compulsion. Influence is encouraging someone to follow your suggestion, while compulsion is forcing someone to do something. For reasons completely lost on me, many coaches utilize compulsion, with punishments handed out when athletes don’t follow what the coach wants. The problem here is that people—athletes included—typically resist being forced to do something, making compulsion a poor strategy. Instead, developing the ability to positively influence others represents a crucial part of coaching development. One way of being influential is by having a strong reputation, something that can be cultivated over time. Messengers, a book I examined earlier in this series, also explores how to convey information with influence.
Another important concept raised by Kaufman is that of safety. Psychological safety is viewed as one of the key components of a functional team; which, in our case, might be the athlete and coach pair or training group, or in team sports the full squad. Psychological safety is defined as the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake, and it has been linked to increased creativity and enhanced communication. Kaufman refers to Crucial Conversations, a seminal book on the topic, and its STATE model for developing psychological safety:
- Share facts – Facts are less controversial, more persuasive, and less insulting than conclusions.
- Tell your story – Explain the situation from your perspective, taking care to use neutral language and avoid blame.
- Ask for other’s perspectives – How do they see things?
- Talk tentatively – Avoid judgments and ultimatums, allow the person you’re communicating with to “buy in” to your suggestions on their own time.
- Encourage testing – Explore what data you would need to determine whether your proposed course of action would be effective and suggest training interventions that you can test the effectiveness of quickly.
Wrapping up this section, Kaufman discusses the Pygmalion Effect. This model states that individuals tend to rise to the level of people’s expectations of them. Leaning on this rule, we can see the value of having challenging (but still realistic) goals and of setting high expectations in terms of behavior and performance. By setting such a high bar, the athletes we work with are more likely to reach higher levels of performance.
3. How Systems Work
Businesses are complex systems that exist within even more complex systems, such as markets and economies. Sport is no different: the athlete represents a complex system themselves, being the integration of neuromuscular, cardiovascular, and many other systems that influence performance. The athlete may then form part of a team—another complex system—and this team then has to interact with opponents, further increasing the complexity present.
Designing a training program requires some form of systems thinking. Complex systems are full of different variables and interdependencies that need to be considered and arranged in the right order to deliver success. Complexity is further increased by uncertainty, which dictates that we are unable to anticipate all the interdependences in advance. As a result, the best approach to developing a complex system, such as a training and performance plan, is to start off with a simple system that is good enough and then consistently iterate over time (as per the iteration cycle and MEVO method).The best way to develop a complex system, such as a training plan, is to start off with a simple system that is good enough and then consistently iterate over time, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
Systems have flow, defined as movements of resources into and out of the system. This can be national governing body support, sponsorship, facility access, other support staff, and assistant coaches—these all represent assets that can move into and out of the process. The extent to which we are reliant on these factors influences the fragility of the system; for example, a training process that requires a particular staff member will fall down if/when that staff member is unavailable. The goal with any system, therefore, is to limit its fragility, which ensures it can continue to operate effectively irrespective of the current state of flow.
Systems also have slack. From a business perspective, slack refers to the amount of resources present, most typically as stock. A business with a big warehouse full of products, therefore, has plenty of slack in case of a current upsurge in orders; businesses that don’t hold much inventory, however, have less slack and are sensitive to surges in demand—as highlighted by the issues with toilet paper during lockdown. From a sporting perspective, slack can be related to injury prevention; here, we want to increase the various resiliencies of an athlete so that they can tolerate more damage before injury occurs. This might include ensuring they get sufficient sleep and are optimizing their nutrition. Conversely, slack can be removed from the system; the athlete who sleeps poorly and doesn’t have good nutritional habits is, as a result, more susceptible to injury.
Systems are also in a constant state of flux, largely due to the high levels of uncertainty they encounter. Uncertainty is defined as an unknown unknown; something that could not be predicted—and hence planned for—in advance (the opposite, a known unknown, is risk). While we can’t plan for specific uncertainties, we can plan for uncertainties in general. As a result, any plan we have must be easily modifiable, and we must make modifications frequently based on new information.
From a training perspective, this includes the use of monitoring: Is the athlete adapting to the load or are they overly fatigued? Do you need to modify training because of an injury? Have they improved as much as they can in this area, or should you repeat the block? (For those interested, I tangentially discussed this concept in a paper I wrote back in 2019.) Because of pattern matching, it’s easy for us to over-interpret what we see, so the collection of unbiased data to support decisions is crucial.
Businesses also need to focus on systems optimization, and again there are important lessons we can take from this into sport. In business, optimization takes place around a set of key performance indicators (KPIs), which businesses use to measure how they are performing. In sport, we also have KPIs.
Taking the example of a 100-meter runner, the most obvious KPI is their season best: Are they faster this year than last year? The problem with this KPI is the lag time—by the time you know they’re underperforming, it is too late to make any changes, given the short time frame of the competitive season and the longer time frame required for physical adaptations. Instead, we need to develop proxy markers of success, and use these as KPIs. The challenges here are:
- You need to find tests that correlate strongly with actual performance.
- You need to avoid training to become good at the test at the expense of improving competition performance.
Systems optimization also includes maximization and minimization. The latter suggests that we aim to reduce aspects that harm us from hitting our KPIs. From a training and performance standpoint, in my opinion the big two are training too hard too often (and the associated fatigue and underperformance) and injury/illness. To optimize a training system, we need to minimize factors that can cause those two main issues.
One way we can do this is by refactoring, which is the removal of factors in the pursuit of efficiency. Within a training system, this would include removing sessions and/or exercises that don’t improve the athlete’s chances of meeting their KPIs—so-called empty training. Key to this process is asking the question, “What can I get rid of without harming performance?” Kaufman refers to those exercises/sessions that we keep as the critical few—the small minority of inputs that drive the greatest output.
A subdiscipline of systems science deals with safety, and there is a concept within systems theory of normal accidents. Here, it is believed that failures and accidents, while unexpected and undesired, are the result of complexity and interactions; basically, an accident is not typically one thing going well, but numerous things going wrong at the same time.
As it is difficult to forecast these events, accidents are viewed as “expected” and, hence, normal. This means two things:
- We must design systems that prevent single failures from becoming an accident.
- We must also design systems that are able to tolerate some form of failure.
The latter is termed resilience; for the former, we need to develop fail-safes, which can act as an early warning system of an impending accident. In sport, the most common “accidents” are injury or error during competition, both of which lead to underperformance.
A fail-safe from an injury prevention perspective might be improving musculoskeletal robustness through general conditioning or load monitoring; from a performance in competition perspective, it might include stress testing. Here, the athlete (or team) is subjected to realistic competition scenarios to assess how they perform, with their performance used to guide subsequent training interventions. This points to the importance of representative design in training sessions, which I wrote about for SimpliFaster in 2019. This stress testing allows for early identification of issues, which can then be rectified before the major competition.
Course EvalBy looking through the lens of systems theory, we can stimulate new thoughts and approaches to support us in developing athletes, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
While sports coaches reading business books is a cliché, The Personal MBA has clear lessons and mental models that apply to better coaching. For me, the best part of the book was “How Systems Work”—by approaching athlete development from the lens of systems theory, we can stimulate new thoughts and approaches to support us in developing athletes. Often, we focus on enhancing our technical knowledge; instead, if we think about how we approach problems, we might be able to better stand out from the crowd.
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