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All I Really Needed To Know (About Management), I Learned In Sports

by Samantha Salvia


I spent most of my 20s and 30s with parallel careers: water resources engineer and elite athlete. By day I managed multi-disciplinary teams working on water supply planning and infrastructure projects. Evenings and weekends I trained and travelled all over the country competing with my ultimate frisbee team. One paid in money, the other in a currency harder to measure, but more valuable.

On Halloween night in 2003, I was on a flight from Sarasota, Florida to the San Francisco Bay Area returning from the national championships with some exhausted teammates, a gold medal around my neck, and the national championship trophy precariously wedged into an overhead bin.

Fury Ultimate 2003 National Champions

On November 1 at 9 a.m., I was back at my desk at a public drinking water utility.

Reflecting on those times, the evolution of my management style, and how I learned to communicate more effectively, collaborate with different types of people, and lead teams through transitions and setbacks, I see now that I routinely pulled my sports experiences into my work domain, and not so often the other way around.

Captaining that ultimate team taught me the value of creating meaningful roles for every teammate.  Our annual tryout process revealed the importance of communicating feedback early, avoiding surprises, and having hard conversations. Painful missteps with teammates underscored the importance of recognizing and appreciating people’s strengths rather than, or before, being critical.

My team’s successes and struggles helped me see the value of vulnerability and humility as a leader. That trophy came a year after we lost the national championship final on double gamepoint, a year in which I garnered some hard-earned lessons in how team leaders cultivate shared vision, commitment, and accountability.

Now, working with Positive Coaching Alliance, I talk frequently with founder and CEO Jim Thompson about the natural connection between effective coaching in sports and effective management in the workplace. What athletes need to perform well and have a meaningful athletic experience is similar to what people need in the workplace - things like connection, purpose, and a belief they can improve.

PCA synthesizes the latest sports psychology research and best practices from the country’s top coaches and athletes into usable tools for coaches.

Magic Ratio

PCA uses the analogy of an emotional tank - similar to a car’s gas tank. With full emotional tanks athletes can go far - they are resilient and coachable. Research from multiple settings suggests a 5:1 ratio of tank-filling to tank-draining feedback supports the best performance and healthiest relationships.  However, humans seem to be natural tank drainers. We have a tendency to notice what is wrong, rather than what is right, and sometimes believe as coaches that our primary job to point out all that needs improvement.  Correction and critical feedback are important parts of coaching, and they are more effective when balanced with positive feedback.   

In PCA workshops, coaches learn that the one thing almost every coach can do to improve their coaching is increase their ratio of positive-to-critical feedback.  Based on a recent article in Harvard Business Review, it seems this might be true for managers as well. In their May 2017 article entitled, Why do so many managers avoid giving praise?, authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write that... 

Leaders... vastly underestimate the power and necessity of positive reinforcement. Conversely, they greatly overestimate the value and benefit of negative or corrective feedback.

-Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, Harvard Business Review

Their research suggests that leaders who give positive feedback are perceived as more effective by their colleagues, bosses, and direct reports.

Appreciations and Triumphs

PCA defines team culture as “The way we do things here.” I love this simple definition. We teach coaches the importance of being intentional in creating their team culture. We encourage coaches to end practices and games with a “winner’s circle” in which players acknowledge their teammates’ positive contributions.

One way PCA maintains its own organizational culture is by starting every staff meeting with Triumphs and Appreciations. Colleagues acknowledge recent successes (Triumphs) and recognize coworkers who provided support (Appreciations). Peer recognition and gratitude are powerful motivators. Public acknowledgement by colleagues fills emotional tanks and moves the workplace closer to the 5:1 ratio, creating an environment that supports better performance.  

Become a Noticer of Effort

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment

- Carol Dweck, author of Mindset and recipient of PCA’s Ronald L. Jensen Award for Lifetime Achevement.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Carol Dweck’s work is changing the world. Fortunately for PCA, Dr. Dweck is one of our most engaged national advisory board members. In a Q&A session with Julie Foudy (seen below) at our 2017 National Youth Sports Awards, Dr. Dweck shared some her most recent research.  Among her findings was the insight that, like individuals, teams and organizations have mindsets.

Individuals and teams with growth mindsets are more resilient, try more strategies, and show more improvement through a season than those with fixed mindsets.

One way for coaches and managers to capitalize on Dr. Dweck’s findings and to cultivate growth mindsets is to become what PCA calls a “Noticer of Effort.” Coaches create a culture of team growth and improvement by making a habit of noticing effort and practice, rather than talent or outcome. In the workplace, the ratio of practice to “gametime” is usually the reverse of what it is for sports. Salespeople may spend 90% of their time on client calls (game time) and only a small portion honing their pitch (practice).  It makes it all the more importance for managers to notice and make clear they value their colleagues’ preparation and effort.

PCA Corporate Workshops

This year, PCA will deliver nearly 3,000 live workshops for coaches, athlete, parents, and leaders on the how to create a positive, character building youth and high school sports experience. Fundamentally, coaching and managing are about developing people. In a recent podcast with Jim Thompson, Golden State Warriors head coach and PCA National Advisory Board Member Steve Kerr said:

We are all in the development business. We are all just trying to get players to be better individually so that their careers go well and so that our teams play better.

-Steve Kerr, PCA National Advisory Board Member, Head Coach of the Golden State Warriors.

Recently, PCA started conducting workshops focused on coaching tools for managers in a corporate setting. Our corporate partners are finding that many of the tools and principles that are effective in working with athletes are just as powerful in the workplace. We've received feedback that these corporate workshops are positively impacting corporate managers beyond their day-to-day business world, giving them tools and resources for their lives as parents and as coaches of their kids as well. It turns out sports, like kindergarten, has a lot to teach us.  

If you are interested in learning more about Positive Coaching Alliance corporate workshops, please contact Casey Miller.

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If you are interested in learning more about Positive Coaching Alliance corporate workshops, please contact Casey Miller

Email Casey

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