Business is not a sport. But great coaching is just as important to success in the office as on the field. Over the years, HBR has interviewed some of the world’s top athletic coaches. We mined our archives for a few of their best insights that apply to employees and players alike.
Under manager Joe Girardi, the New York Yankees baseball team won their 27th World Series championship title. Girardi has won more than 500 games as a manager. He told us how he coaches players on when to listen to their guts and abandon the plan: “If you think too much, you fail, because the game happens too quickly. The key is preparation… The data has to become instinctual. You can’t think about it in the middle of a pitch.”
And it’s the same whether you are managing rookies or stars. In either case, he says, “you have to lead by example. You ask your players to be prepared mentally and physically, so you have to be prepared. Beyond that, you’ve got to adapt to the type of players you have. If you’ve got a home-run-hitting team, you can’t make them all base stealers, and vice versa.”
Adapting to your players was also a theme for Bela Karolyi, the gymnastics coach whose gymnasts have earned, among other honors, nine Olympic gold medals. “You have to take them individually,” he told us, “Find out what part of their mind is clicking, what part of their character is responding to you, and what’s the one thing you have to avoid. Nadia Comaneci was like steel. I never had to say, ‘Don’t be chicken,’ because she was never chicken. She was like a racehorse waiting to run. Now, Kerri Strug — she was the most timid little girl of my life, so she needed gradual reinforcement of self-confidence. In a competition I had to take away the stress, the paralyzing thoughts. So it was: ‘I haven’t seen this leotard. It looks good on you. Where did you buy it?’ Then, in a casual way: ‘OK, by the way, it’s your turn. You’re ready? OK, go ahead.’ Each time, you have a totally different approach.”
And Karolyi also tailored his approach to the situation. “Criticism and encouragement have to be alternated and used at the right time and in the right situation. If there is ignorance or laziness or lack of interest, then make the critical remarks. If criticism isn’t working, you have a much more concrete discussion about the reason we’re competing.”
Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary coach of the Manchester United football — or as we call it in America, soccer — team, sat down with Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse to reveal his coaching secrets. And he, too, had some considered thoughts on criticism: “Few people get better with criticism; most respond to encouragement instead. So I tried to give encouragement when I could. For a player — for any human being — there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done.’ Those are the two best words ever invented. You don’t need to use superlatives.”
But if someone has failed to meet expectations, don’t wait to correct them. “I would do it right after the game. I wouldn’t wait until Monday. I’d do it, and it was finished. I was on to the next match.”
For Ferguson, one of the keys was closely observing his players. “What you can pick up by watching is incredibly valuable… Seeing a change in a player’s habits or a sudden dip in his enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him: Is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes I could even tell that a player was injured when he thought he was fine. I don’t think many people fully understand the value of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key — or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don’t expect to see.”
Ferguson doesn’t buy the idea that coaching stars takes special finesse. After all, the reason they’re stars is that they already work terrifically hard. “Superstars with egos are not the problem some people may think. They need to be winners, because that massages their egos, so they will do what it takes to win.” In 2000, Bill Parcells, a football (American football, this time) coach famous for turning around underperforming teams, wrote about his approach, which is slightly blunter than Ferguson’s.
“You have to be honest with people — brutally honest,” he wrote. “You have to tell them the truth about their performance, you have to tell it to them face-to-face, and you have to tell it to them over and over again. Sometimes the truth will be painful, and sometimes saying it will lead to an uncomfortable confrontation. So be it. The only way to change people is to tell them in the clearest possible terms what they’re doing wrong. And if they don’t want to listen, they don’t belong on the team.”
And don’t be afraid to turn up the heat. “If you want to get the most out of people, you have to apply pressure — that’s the only thing that any of us really responds to.”
Yes, he concedes, this can create conflict. But for him, that’s not a problem. “I’ve actually come to relish confrontation, not because it makes me feel powerful but because it provides an opportunity to get things straight with people… In the end, I’ve found, people like the direct approach.”
“I’ve had many players come back to me ten years later and thank me for putting the pressure on them. They say what they remember most about me is one line: ‘I think you’re better than you think you are.’ In fact, they say they use the same line with their kids when they’re not doing so well in school or are having other problems. My father used that expression with me, and there’s a lot of truth to it — people can do more than they think they can.”
Still, having turned three underperforming teams around, Parcells doesn’t believe in just shouting his players into winning. Instead, “set small goals and hit them.”
“When you set small, visible goals, and people achieve them, they start to get it into their heads that they can succeed. They break the habit of losing and begin to get into the habit of winning. It’s extremely satisfying to see that kind of shift take place.”
Finally, we also sat down with Bill Walsh, the businesslike coach of three Super Bowl-winning 1980s San Francisco 49ers football team, in 1993. Long before the era of sophisticated player analytics and probabilistic outcome modeling, Walsh was known as a cerebral and strategic coach in an era when many coaches were content to out-macho each other.
“You are actually striving for two things at the same time: an organization where people understand the importance of their jobs and are committed to living within the confines of those jobs and to taking direction,” he told us, “ And an organization where people feel creative and adaptive and are willing to change their minds without feeling threatened. It is a tough combination to achieve. But it’s also the ultimate in management.”
His two most famous quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, came from opposite ends of this spectrum. And like both Karolyi and Girardi, he adapted his style to what the players needed.
“Early on, we had to encourage Joe to trust his spontaneous instincts. We were careful not to criticize him when he used his creative abilities and things did not work out. Instead, we nurtured him to use his instincts. We had to allow him to be wrong on occasion and to live with it. In the case of quarterback Steve Young, it was almost the opposite. We had to work with him to be disciplined enough to live within the strict framework of what we were doing. Steve is a great spontaneous athlete and a terrific runner. But we found that we had to reduce the number of times he would use his instincts and increase his willingness to stay within the confines of the team concept.”
And unlike Parcells, Walsh expressed caution about being too direct. “It sounds just great to say that you are going to be honest and direct. But insensitive, hammer-like shots that are delivered in the name of honesty and openness usually do the greatest damage to people. The damage ends up reverberating throughout the entire organization. Over time, people will lose the bonding factor they need for success. And over time, that directness will isolate you from the people with whom you work.”
And Walsh agrees with Ferguson that the stars aren’t where you need to focus your energy. “Superstars will usually take care of themselves,” said Walsh. “Anybody can coach them.”
“The difference between winning and losing is the bottom 25% of your people,” explained Walsh. “Most coaches can deliver the top 75%. But the last 25% only blossoms in the details, in the orchestration of skills, in the way you prepare.”
The interviews are well worth reading in full, but a few key lessons stand out:
- Be prepared and expect the same of your team.
- Adjust your style to each of your employees’ needs. What works for one person could be detrimental to another. Figure out the best approach for each by watching your employees in action.
- Choose encouragement over criticism; but when you must criticize, give feedback as soon after the event as possible. Be honest but compassionate, then move on.
- Have high expectations. Believe in your team.
- Don’t ignore or sideline underperformers — your team is only as good as your weakest member. Instead, help them improve.
- Make progress tangible. Set clear goals and milestones, and celebrate when you hit them.