Parallels between Athletic Coaching and People Performance


A white paper published by The Forum, affiliated with Northwestern University

The concept of applying “coaching” techniques to human resource management has been a recurring theme within business leadership ranks for a number of years, coinciding with the movement away from the traditional employer/employee relationships of the past toward more collaborative “team” approaches in the hopes that it would increase organizational productivity. In this paper, The Forum’s Academic Director, Dr. Frank Mulhern of Northwestern University, examines the key dimensions of successful athletic team coaching in light of the people performance concepts studied and advocated by The Forum. The goal of this work is to provide today’s business leaders with some pragmatic insights for advancing people performance within their own organizations.

The Forum advocates a people-first approach to managing, motivating and engaging employees. This paper investigates the prospect that people-oriented aspects of athletic coaching may have some parallels to management, and may offer some insights for advancing people performance. The importance of focusing on people in athletics was highlighted by Bill Walsh, the famed coach of the Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49ers, who told Harvard Business Review that the teams that are most successful are those that “demonstrate the greatest commitment to their people.”

The literature on coaching establishes that the single most important aspect of successful coaching is building and maintaining personal relationships between players and their coach. Technical expertise about a sport and in-game decision-making are not nearly as important as a coach’s ability to build and maintain close personal relationships with players and leverage those relationships into athletic performance. A commitment to people requires creating a culture of trust and transparency and a strong desire to make players happy. Tommy Lasorda, former Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, noted that “contented players perform better.”

Listed below are key dimensions of successful coaching that reflect common aspects of people performance. We discuss each of them with regard to their relevance to the personal relationship between a player and a coach and the connections of the concepts to The Forum.

Know the whole person: The best coaches do not limit their interest in players to athletics. Good coaches get to know the whole person and maintain a genuine interest in all aspects of the player’s life. Personally knowing players goes well beyond understanding a player’s physical and mental ability and extends to a coach’s genuine interest in a player’s personal well-being. Doing so creates trust and friendship, leading to a meaningful personal relationship. The Forum places a similar emphasis on the social and interpersonal aspects of work — that is, the idea that work can’t be isolated and treated as a separate aspect of an employee’s life, as The Forum advocates with the concept of employee enrichment — a true concern for all aspects of an employee’s life.

A culture of respect: Good coaches create environments where all players respect all other players and coaches. This, too, reflects the people performance emphasis on interpersonal relationships among workers. A culture of respect is required for players to be mentally prepared to receive instruction, advice and constructive criticism from coaches. Several successful coaches have noted that a lack of respect completely undermines the ability to coach. What makes respect a challenging concept is that it is an intangible concept that is difficult to define and measure. However it is obvious when it is lacking and, when it’s lost, it can rarely be restored. An emphasis on respect aligns with The Forum’s people-first approach in that it inherently embodies respect for other people.

The ForumIndividual attention: Good coaches provide personalized attention to players as individuals. While this is facilitated by the fewness of the players, it is crucial for coaches to be able to motive and instruct players. This aspect builds on a coach’s efforts to get to know players personally (as noted above). It is important that the individualized attention not just be about aspects that relate to athletic performance. Good coaches give individualized attention about all aspects of a player’s life. Since players are motivated in different ways, coaches must understand individual player’s feelings and emotions and incorporate that understanding into specific communications. Importantly, this dimension of coaching reveals that there is no template or formula for optimal coaching, or, more generally, optimal ways for interacting with people. Coaches regularly eschew the idea that they have some secret process or practice and credit their team’s success to the players and the relationships they have with each other and the coaches.

Superior communication: Closely related to individual attention is the need for immensely effective communication. Without exception, great coaches are great communicators. In many cases, great communication means explaining things to players so they understand why coaches make the decisions they do. In contrast, when players do not understand their coach’s decisions, they feel a lack of respect and may lessen their level of trust. A major aspect of coaching is conveying information to players, in both practice and games, which improves the performance of individuals and the team. Coaches must create an environment for that information to be properly received, understood and acted upon. The key people-related aspect here is that the information only has value because of the trust, respect and commitment the coach has engendered overall.

An additional aspect of communication is the expression of appreciation. Coaches go to great lengths to express direct appreciation to players. While appreciation can serve as a means of encouragement, coaches caution that appreciation should not be excessive or disingenuous — players can see through such communications and become discouraged.

Pride and a sense of belonging: Vince Lombardi stated that, “Individualized commitment to a group effort is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, and a civilization work.” Good coaches instill a strong sense of pride in the team and what it stands for (a city, school, etc.). Coaches need to help players feel a strong sense of belonging to something that is very meaningful. Pride, particularly a deep pride that is shared among players, elevates the importance of the sport and leads to greater intensity. The idea of a sense of belonging closely relates to employee engagement and the meaningfulness of work — a concept discussed at some length in The Forum leadership paper in 2009.

Responsiveness to needs: Good coaches are highly responsive to the needs of individual players and the team as a whole. This is a very important concept that may add to how we think about people performance. Management as a profession features an approach that management is something that managers do to employees. A responsive approach reverses that orientation and makes the manager responsive to the employees. This seems to relate to the servant leader concept as well as the idea The Forum set forth in the end of the leadership paper about the need for organizations to borrow the consumer insight concept from Marketing and develop “employee insight” to guide managerial practices. Coaches seem to do this in a more fundamental way as represented by John Wooden’s statement, “Make sure that team members know they are working with you, not for you.”


There are many parallels between coaching and people performance. Businesses have long invited successful coaches to be speakers and their emphasis has mostly been on inspiration and leadership. This paper has drawn out the concepts in coaching that reflect the people-first approach of The Forum, and relate to people performance. Coaching is inherently people-first. While coaches need some technical expertise in the game, their success is far more driven by people-related skills than anything else. Perhaps most importantly, excellence in coaching results from what we might call “player enrichment” — a sports equivalent of employee enrichment, as developed in The Forum leadership paper. Players perform best when an organization supports all aspects of a player’s life.


— The Forum: Business Results Through People, affiliated with Northwestern University, is an organization for thought leadership advocating the most effective way business leaders create and sustain organizational value is through partnership with people. The Forum promotes a people-centered leadership approach by providing relevant, provocative and actionable academic research; creating a platform for leaders to dialog, network and benchmark practices; delivering ideas for practical action and experimentation; and building and supporting a community of champions for people-centered leadership. For more information, contact The Forum at 630-369-7780 or online at