Great managers are like great coaches

Sport and the workplace have a lot in common when it comes to reaching goals

Peter Jensen is a performance psychologist who has worked with Canada’s Olympic athletes for years. While other coaches focus on technical skills, Jensen helps athletes prepare mentally. He helped the Canadian women’s hockey team that won gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino, Italy, in 2006.

Great managers are the same as great coaches. They lead and guide their team to success. Just like in sport, the following issues are at play in the workplace:

•performance is measured;

•there is tremendous pressure;

•there is uncertainty over an event’s outcome (nobody ultimately knows who is going to win or lose);

•there is a heightened sense of excitement and anxiety over the importance of an upcoming competition;

•an organization sometimes has to make do with fewer people or resources than it would like;

•there is a global playing field of competition (akin to soccer’s World Cup or the Olympics).

Leading and coaching a team is all about bringing out the internal advantages that enable individuals to help achieve great results and the personal and professional success that comes with results. At the world-class level, most working professionals have the same technical and strategic advantages at their disposal. However, the “internal advantage” is what will put employees over the top and provide them with the greatest opportunity to win.

Employees can choose at which level they want to perform. To use a hockey analogy, they can choose to watch the clock and use their ice time without feeling any motivation to score or assist, or they can choose to take action and put the puck in the net. The manager’s role is to help the team start performing at the best level possible, to get them using their mental advantage to move past opponents and score those winning goals.

Five ways to coach a team to the gold medal

Just as the ultimate prize for an Olympic athlete is the gold medal, the goal for employees is to get the most out of their career. Here are five key elements to leading for success.

Perspective: Everything starts with the way individuals look at the world. They need to understand their personal biases or slants, and be true to them, in order to make the best decisions.

“It might be nature or nurture or life experiences (that form a person); it really doesn’t matter,” said Jensen. “Once you know that about yourself, you can start to make choices.”

Many people are blind to their faults, or don’t truly understand how they view things. Perception is also influenced by external factors such as friends, family, coaches, bosses and mentors. How employees see themselves, and any opportunities that may lie before them, can either be positive or negative. Perception is both external (what others think) and internal (what individuals think of themselves). Internal perception ultimately influences a person’s views and her ability to take advantage of an opportunity when it arrives. Employees need to understand clearly what is at stake and how it may impact their perception. How have they been affected by other people’s perceptions of them and what they have to offer the world?

Imagery: Society has strayed from valuing creativity. The focus has shifted to the logical side of the brain (left-brain functions), away from imagery and language that tend to be processed on the right side of the brain. Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has even called imagery “the forgotten language of our youth.”

Everyone would benefit from going back to kindergarten and studying how to be creative again and relearning how to play. Reconnecting with the right brain can have a positive impact on performance. Most blockages in a professional’s life occur on the inside, not the outside, so the most effective way to communicate with oneself is through the right side of the brain. People can only make full use of their imagination when they engage all the senses and treat their imaginings as experiences. The subconscious mind doesn’t differentiate between real or imaginary experiences — it treats them all equally.

Energy management: Managing energy, not time, is important to achieving high-level performance. If energy or adrenaline levels run too high, people risk choking because they become too anxious about the outcome. This is true of athletes. Consider what happened to the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings in the 2005–06 National Hockey League season. Both teams did extremely well in the regular season but, during the Stanley Cup playoffs, they failed to manage their energy by reserving some for when they needed it most. As a result, both teams, although heavily favoured, were eliminated in the early rounds of the playoffs. They excelled in the regular season and underperformed when it really mattered.

Focus: One good way to look at focus is to take a page from the sport of curling. The key to curling is to focus on putting the rock at the centre of the ring. Curlers must decide what they want to do and then settle upon a strategy and actions that will move them towards this goal. In the case of the women’s Olympic hockey team, the goal was to win the gold medal. In an employee’s case, it may be to fit into a new role or do well in an interview situation.

“Once you have a destination it is amazing what you can get,” said Jensen. “You will start to notice that everything you read or see on TV shows is (suddenly) lining up with your vision. If you decide tomorrow that you are going to go to Italy, you will start to notice all kinds of Italian things.”

Hard work always important: When Jensen helped the women’s hockey team attain its dream of winning the gold medal, he helped the players with all of the above principles: perspective, imagery, energy management and focus. The players were a very talented group of women and they worked very hard for every goal and win. Similarly, managers need to be talented and work very hard on projects and encourage their team with their work ethic to make the most of each opportunity that comes their way. Otherwise, none of the above principles will matter.

Alan Kearns is the head coach and owner of CareerJoy, an Ottawa/Toronto-based company that provides guidance, tools and resources for career decisions. He is the author of Get the Right Job Right Now. He can be reached at [email protected] (877) 256-2569 or visit for more information.

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