Improving performance: Elite sports lessons for business… and vice versa

When it comes to teamwork, elite sports professionals are at the top of the tree. Few other careers expose people to such intense public scrutiny, with every team member’s actions watched and scrutinised in real time by tens of thousands of people.   So it was a huge honour (and challenge!) when the directors of two of the UK’s most famous premiership rugby clubs asked us to work with them this year to improve the effectiveness of their already impressive squads.

The big difference is they didn’t want physical or skills based exercises on a pitch. They needed a much more personal experience, working with everyone in the club to find and unlock the individual personal strengths in a team and harness them to generate better results.

It’s been an incredibly enjoyable and informative experience, and we’ve spotted some interesting points that high performing teams in business could note from elite sport, and vice versa.

Lessons from sport:

Feedback. In elite sport you get seconds to deliver or receive feedback. Top performers are hungry for every piece of personal data that will help them perform better. Conversely, business can see feedback as criticism and a threat, and waste energy defending their previous performance.
Performance measurement. Elite sports people are embracing technology to drive their performance improvements. Imagine a business parallel of having a GPS chip on your back measuring speed, distance, impact of each carry or tackle, and 20 camera angles playing back every minute of your performance on a Monday morning!
Ruthless meritocracy. There’s a relentless and ruthless emphasis on high performance in premier sport. If you under-perform in a game you lose your place, possibly mid-game. It’s then harder to prove your value and ultimately your contract won’t be renewed and your career could be over. If an individual underperforms in some businesses, they can go through a convoluted disciplinary process for months, taking the time of other team members, and then often get money to go away!!

Lessons from business  


Constant cross functional working. Every successful business has a range of diverse but highly effective teams working to a common vision, and cross functional working is critical. There are now as many departments in elite clubs as within a typical business (strength and conditioning experts, physios, medics, admin teams, data analysts, forwards, backs, attack, defence, coaches, academy etc etc), and sure enough agendas and objectives can start to conflict if not managed well.
Manager makes the difference – players have always become coaches or managers.  Some do it after a decade or more at the top of their game, others take coaching or management roles earlier because of injury or illness. But the difference in required skills is expanding. In business, leaders are given training for planning, man management, budget control and leadership – but this is less prevalent in sport.
Cultural change. Finding and maintaining a common culture and ‘values’ in a club with 60+ players and management, including people from other parts of the UK or from overseas who do not share a first language or common culture, is difficult. The days when players were selected mainly from the local community are gone. These challenges are not new to Business. Great companies drive a culture using vision and values that aim to create a shared sense of identity and culture. Of course you also need something else – team engagement – because being able to dance takes more than just learning the steps.