Sporting chances

Can the games people play really add value to business and coaching

It had to happen. British business has long turned to sport for models of
inspiration and motivation and has been kicking around with tennis and golfing
parallels for the past 30 years. Now it is football’s turn to take the winner’s
podium and supply a fresh perspective on the challenges facing modern

A new book, The 90-minute manager – business lessons from the dugout
suggests that ‘the beautiful game’ can offer answers to classic modern
management questions such as:

– how to create team spirit

– what makes top talent want to work for a particular manager

Authors David Bolchover and Chris Brady look at the key personality
characteristics that define a great talent manager and examine whether the
ideal manager of a winning football team is different from that for a
struggling team.

So why is football relevant? Bolchover and Brady argue that business is
‘making the journey’ that football did many years ago, because it is finally
realising the importance of the highly visible manager, as football always has.
They argue that because a growing impatience with bureaucracy means business is
moving towards the openness and visibility which football has always possessed,
management performance will be more measurable and the positive effect of a good
manager will be more obvious.

They also believe that the ‘transitional nature’ of the roles within
football, in which players are instantaneously transformed from attackers to
defenders and vice versa, reflects the dynamism of today’s corporate giants.

The book works well as an introduction to management principles. It makes
good reading material for line managers on issues such as creating teams and
demarcations within management. It is also useful for bringing a fresh view on
understanding the talent economy, but ultimately can football, or any sport, be
a valid tool for understanding business or are we in danger of transferring the
national obsession with sport into the workplace just for the sake of it?

"Football is an eye-opener," says Warwick Business School’s Dr
Susan Bridgewater, who has been working with football managers and coaches to
develop their skills as club managers. A programme of distance learning and
classroom sessions, sponsored by bodies such as the FA Premier League, will
lead to a University of Warwick Certificate in Applied Management.

Bridgewater believes business managers would be shocked if they looked at
the pressures facing their counterparts in football.

"Football managers have a relatively short timescale to prove themselves,"
she says. "And they have to do this in the spotlight. The average managers
in a large organisations have much longer to make their mark than their
football counterparts and are unlikely to be sacked instantly if they make

Bridgewater believes football managers have to command a bewildering number
of skills. "They need leadership ability, teambuilding and negotiation
skills and have to quickly master public speaking," she says. "They
also need to be adept at multicultural management and be able to quickly bind
players of different nationalities to work as a team."

Ultimately, she believes, football is one of a number of tools which
business can turn to. "It is another source of ideas," she says.
"Business needs to find examples of good practice wherever they can."

At CGR Business Psychologists, principal consultant Sarah Macpherson agrees
that sporting, and especially football, analogies have their uses. "A lot
of businesses seem to like these comparisons," she says. "They help
trainees remember key points from a course and work well in terms of
acceptability in a male environment."

Sporting terms, for example, can prevent training from seeming ‘fluffy’, she
says. "Male managers respond really well to talk of goals and winning,
just as they like rugby phrases such as ‘tackling the issues’ and golfing talk
about ‘business handicaps’. However, courses which take in a female audience
need to carry a broader range of references."

Women can be turned off by sporty talk, says Macpherson, because they tend
to be less overtly competitive and don’t need to identify as strongly with
popular heroes. "They can also feel that sporting analogies are
reinforcing a macho culture," she adds.

Another danger when trying to apply sporting metaphors to business is
getting too hung up on the concept of the sports coach, cautions managing
director of the School of Coaching David Webster.

"The common view of sports coaches in the UK is someone who shouts from
the touchline," he says, adding that it is madness to try to apply this
approach in business.

Webster advocates sensitive and appropriately non-directive coaching
techniques and defines the level of business performance that participants
should be aiming for as "relaxed concentration, such as when tennis is going

Both Macpherson and Bridgewater see sport as just one of the tools for
business to enrich its thinking, and believe the trainer needs to draw on other
metaphors and references too.

As Webster says: "In sport, the game is well-defined. Businesses don’t
have that because part of a leader’s role is to define ‘the game’. Sport is an
analogy for life", he says. "It’s not life".

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