Training May 2015

Modern sports coaching for business

The classic half-time locker room rant from the coach, whipping the team into a frenzy for the upcoming onslaught, is now obsolete—to be found gathering dust in Hollywood’s archives. Today’s most successful coaches are masters of human psychology, combining insight with superb communication skills.

What about leaders in business? Conferences, off-sites and retreats are supplying substantial income for sports coaches as they induct business folk into the mysteries of motivation. All the delegates may return to work feeling fired up, but they often fail to adopt what they have been told because they were not clear on how to do so.

I originally came to Japan in 1979 to study karate. I have competed internationally and been a national coach for Australia, representing my country.

In my experience, the Japanese model of sports leadership is antiquated, excelling in only one area: gaman (perseverance). The Japanese really know how to practice gaman. As they love technology, lots of equipment is used in sports training, but leadership soft skills are still underdeveloped.

There is no great proliferation of sports coaches becoming gurus about leadership for business audiences here. Japan’s feudal militaristic regimes for leadership spill over into business from the domestic sports world.

Members of university clubs know that age seniority, group dominance, rigid hierarchy and the suppression of the individual are the key leadership lessons learnt at varsity. This is not a sparkling sports blueprint for leadership in the modern world of business.

In 1988, I attended a luncheon speech by John Ribot, then-chief executive officer of Australian professional rugby league football club Brisbane Broncos. He had been a top player and was launching the then-new club, which today is a global powerhouse.

At that time, I had been a karate instructor for 17 years, having studied under Japanese karate masters for four years in Brisbane and for six years in Japan. I was a National Level 2 Coach of the Australian Karate Federation, had graduated from the Australia Coaching Council programme, and thought I knew about motivating and coaching people.

Ribot said something at that luncheon which stunned me. He was contrasting the old style rugby coaching approach with a more psychology-based one.

He said that, in the modern era, leaders coach each player individually and the “big rah-rah rally” style was gone. He gave an example in which one player would be reminded of his big salary package and that he had better perform or else face the consequences.

In the case of another player, the coach simply said: “It’s a beautiful day to play football. Go out there and enjoy yourself”. Absolutely no pressure was placed on that player.

The lesson for business in Japan is to train our leaders to inspire our teams, one person at a time, based on what that person finds motivational. It sounds obvious when you say it, but how many of us have any experience of being led, or in leading others, that way?

Generally, leaders do whatever they want and we have to fit in with it. They are often “driver personality” types, where the key philosophy is “my way or the highway”.

Motivating others requires a good understanding of the interests and aspirations of that person. Communication skills and time invested in getting to know that person are critical.

However, in a time-poor world of doing more, faster, and with less, we are skipping steps and rushing toward the finish line. We just don’t invest enough time in knowing our people. How many business leaders can you think of who are really great communicators or motivators? What about you?

Let’s all pause, reflect and commit to improve. We need to build business success through our people, individual by individual, and the time to start is now.