• Ralph Spangenberg

What executive coaches can learn from sports coaches - part one

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

Yes, I would argue that modern sports coaching is a discipline that is often misunderstood and intend to highlight how it is far more nuanced than a simple act of skills training.

The role of the sports coach

The sports coach has slightly different roles depending on the sport and the country that they are working in. For example, a football coach in the English Premier League is understandably called the manager because of added responsibilities of leadership and conducting player transfers.


In other sports, coaches can have more specific roles that focus primarily on player/team performance. Generally, in the world of professional sport, performance is our main concern as it normally translates to measurable results. Like executive coaching, sports coaching does not follow one singular approach and will be conducted differently, depending on the background of the coach and the needs of the client.

Success will be determined by the client, who may have no immediate interest in elevating skills or performance.


The focus might be, for example, on living a balanced life or on developing as a mature and empowered human being. We are unable to draw sharp distinctions between these disciplines as we review how approaches and outcomes may have a different emphasis.

Competitive advantage through marginal gains

In the sports industry today, there is an almost forensic interest in and fascination with how success might be achieved at the elite level. It has become such big business that the accountability for those involved is now extreme.


Feedback in this profession for both players and coaches is constant, conflicting, and at times unforgiving. This has sometimes encouraged the adoption of practices which are, at times, questionable in terms of ethics, but it has, at the same time, helped to create highly effective approaches that could, in our view, be transferred successfully to other industries.

To ensure a competitive advantage where small margins make such great differences, the successful sports coach must not only possess personal qualities such as considerable resilience, ‘steel’ and ‘nous’, but also an in-depth knowledge of their specific discipline and an acute understanding of the processes by which people learn and are motivated. Arguably, the most skillful contemporary practitioners, such as Pep Guardiola (football), Steve Hanson (rugby), Greg Popovic (basketball) and Carlo Ancelotti (football), are exhibiting such understanding today.



There are also exceptional, less well-known coaches, choosing to work at the developmental (youth) level rather than the performance level, because there is less demand for short-term success and perhaps more of an opportunity to facilitate the growth of the whole person. Unfortunately, we rarely get to hear about their work in the same way, but we certainly see the results of their efforts when, for example, a small country or less glamorous club produces a disproportionate number of outstanding players.

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