Are They Alike? Sports and Work Teams


Over the years, this question sometimes comes up – does coaching a sports team and managing a work team the same? I have coached for well over 18 years in both ice hockey and softball. I have been a supervisor/management for well over 27+ years. My simplest answer is yes; I see many similarities in both.

The management task cycle that I like to use is very simple (nothing to far out there):

  • Making goals clear and important
  • Planning and problem solving
  • Facilitating the work of others
  • Obtaining and providing feedback
  • Exercising positive control
  • Reinforcing positive control 


Making goals clear and important – The first step in managing is to be sure that everyone understands what you are trying to accomplish. At the beginning of every season, I sit down with the players (and parents for youth sports) and we go over our goals and key important factors for the upcoming season. Within a work setting, I will get a new team or program and I also attempt to work out what our goals and key important factors are. This is the foundation to getting the team to focus on a common goal.

Planning and problem solving – once we have goals that are clear and important – we must develop plans to achieve them. With my sports teams this comes down to our schedule of practices, games, practices plans and having guest specialty coaches attend when necessary. With my work teams – we use tools and processes that are given to use – and focus on what is really important and plan it out to completion. With regular reviews of how we are doing each month. A bit extreme compared to my sports teams – but then again – work is not like a game. Sometimes you just can not lose a little bit of focus.

Facilitating the work of others – once the plan is in place, as a manager/coach I have to then support my team so that they can get their work done and achieve their goals. From my sports teams perspective, I have them learn a skill or set play and we practice it over and over until we can do it in our sleep. Within the work environment – you don’t get to drill it into each team member till it becomes a force of habit, but close.

Obtaining and providing feedback – this is key to insuring that the plan and actions are going accordingly to the goals we have set forth. Feedback is critical. From a sports team standpoint, we have the immediate feedback of a win or a lose. Each player gets feedback on what they did in the game from a results standpoint. As a coach on the bench, we provide feedback to players and team – during timeouts, change of personal or from the bench – as needed. With the work team we have 1:1’s, project reviews, staff meetings, email and many other avenues to provide feedback (it all comes down to using the right method for the right result).

Exercising positive control – this skill is centered around keeping the work efforts in the team moving toward the established goals. Exercising this control gets into establishing and meeting deadlines (timeliness), control of the details, goal pressure and delegation. Within my sports teams, I have had to learn to break away from what I grew up watching – extremely negative coaches pushing players to the brink of being pissed off to perform well. Today, I use much of what I do at work to help me with my hockey team. I make sure that the control of details are shared, the pressure to perform does not outweigh the having fun factor but remaining firm and positive at the same time. We all know that many managers that do not perform well within this skill are those that we can identify quickly. This skill is something that is learned over time with trial and error (and depends on the maturity level of the team).

Lastly – Reinforcing good performance – when the task is completed appreciation must be expressed. Recognize the good work that has been done. With any sports team – after the game is a good way to recognize the performance of the team, individuals and improvements made. Of course after a loss, there may not be as much of a celebration but in every game there are positives to build on. With my work teams, the immediate results don’t really happen, but we do use our project reviews as a way to reinforce good performance.

Since this is my first real post, please provide me any feedback!

  • Anonymous

    I agree with the points above, they’re important anytime you’re put in a position of leadership. The most important is positivity, I’ve seen the downside of negativity as well, and it’s not productive or conducive to achieving goals.

    It’s a shame when people feel it necessary to degrade for results.

  • Ladee Rickard

    I believe that a positive plan and positive reinforcement are important. I see two additional pieces to the leadership puzzle: Outside forces and perceived failure.

    Work teams are faced with external influences such as management decisions and market/customer changes. Sports Teams, particularly youth teams, are faced with external influences from parents and organizations. Both need to be aware that these influences exist and a plan is needed to address these issues.

    What happens when the team meets all of the goals and timelines and yet there is a “perceived” failure? Work teams pull together to make it happen, only to see a competitor take a product to market first. The sports team stays on task, focuses on meeting the goals, yet has a losing season. How does a leader handle these situations, reinforce the established principles, and keep the group together to play another round?

  • Steve

    @Ladee – I agree with you.

    As far as the outside forces goes – I spend most of my time in the planning, facilitating and feedback phases. This goes for both the work teams and the especially the sports teams. It is so easy to set up the plan and just stay the course. With youth sports, there are so many outside forces that it makes it tough on the coach and especially the players. Coaches face a different challenge trying to balance what is right for the team, organization and parents. Pleasing everyone is not the goal.

    “Perceived” failure is another way of saying the expectations of some were not met. Failure is in the eye of the beholder. I have had plenty of teams that have had winning season, won championships and plenty of others that have not. Is the championship the prize for a complete success? Sometimes. I don’t look at wins or loses as the key to success. In most of my goal setting with my sports teams – it is more on how we will improve, how we will develop as a team and where will we end up, realistically at the end. As a coach, it is my responsibility to be realistic in my goal setting. Coming in and saying that we will be the champs in the end, is a nice goal to set – is it realistic when you look at the roster that you have, the roster of the other teams you are playing, and level of commitment from the complete organization. I usually breakdown the a sport season into 3 parts. The first third is used to gauge where we are at, where we could go and what is needed to get there. The middle third is to see if the changes applied are working, commitment level is still high and setting the goal for the last third. Does this always work? No, but it my goal to achieve the highest level of success.