Business lessons from the sports track

In sport, as well as business, improving performance is about creating an environment that enables people to grow and develop. A former Olympic coach explains how it’s done.

In the high-pressure world of elite sport, only the most determined succeed. Athletes must have the will to endure the arduous training regimes and compete under enormous pressures to produce their best when it counts the most – in the cauldron of Olympic and professional sport competitions.

The winners are not necessarily those with superior physique and talent, but the ones with the ‘right’ motivation.

“We put too much emphasis on physical talent and not enough on understanding motivation,” says Associate Professor Cliff Mallett, a former Olympic coach and now an expert on motivation with UQ. “Sport, as in business, is about how to get the best out of other people and how to create the right environment to achieve that.”

Advances in psychology in recent years have given us greater insight into the complexities of human motivation. Research has shown that highly successful athletes are driven by strong internal motives.

Thinking has changed and coaches have moved away from an over-reliance on rewards and punishment to shape behaviour. They now focus more on increasing internal motivation, for example by providing athletes opportunities to have some say in some decisions, as well as fostering initiative and independence.

According to Associate Professor Mallett, who coached several of Australia’s most successful sprinters in the 1990’s and the Australian relay teams at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, external rewards such as money may even hinder athletes’ performance in the long run. The same is true of professional staff or anyone involved in challenging cognitive tasks.

Research shows different forms of motivation vary according to the degree of autonomy. At one end of the continuum are the athletes who have little or no motivation because they lack interest or perceive that they cannot improve their performance. These athletes are driven by reward, punishment or a sense of obligation. To use a driving analogy, they have no hands on the steering wheel.

At the other end of the continuum are the high achievers who enjoy and take satisfaction in training and competition and pursue excellence because they value what they do. These athletes have both hands on the steering wheel. Athletes need this internal motivation if they are to endure the heavy demands upon them and perform optimally under pressure.

Associate Professor Mallett says: “People can be successful if they are primarily driven by external rewards in the short term, but to achieve sustained success we need internal rather than external motives.

“External rewards such as money are likely to increase pressure to perform in the long run, especially when things do not go to plan. External rewards can become controlling and undermine internal motivation.”

To bring out the best in people, Associate Professor Mallett says leaders need to nurture three fundamental psychological needs: competence, autonomy and a sense of belonging.

They should aim to create an adaptive learning environment. “Sports clubs and businesses are learning organisations, and a key goal should be to nurture the learning of everyone – coaches, athletes, parents, officials,” he says. “Too often we think it’s about telling people what to do rather than ‘spinning the plates’ of others through guidance and providing opportunities for decision-making, initiative and independence.

“People don’t respond well to being told what to do and how to do it – we cannot make others learn nor can we motivate them directly, but we can create a supportive learning environment which satisfies people’s need for autonomy, competence, and belonging,” Associate Professor Mallett adds.

Here are some other ways to develop a high-performing team:

  •     Praise success

People are driven to demonstrate competence so leaders’ feedback should highlight achievements and progress. This helps to build a sense of accomplishment that, in turn, fosters internal motivation.

  •     Create a sense of belonging

People are tribal – they like to belong and be accepted by others. Make your staff feel part of a team. This is particularly important for those at risk of feeling they do not belong, such as the ‘bench players’ in sporting teams.

  •     Provide choice

Allow people to have a say in what they do and how they do it, but set boundaries. For example, if you set a task, we might consider two options on how to carry it out from which one is selected. Allow them to take the initiative in some cases, to work independently and to suggest ideas to solve problems. Avoid coercion or controlling behaviours – ‘You have to do it this way’.

  •     Explain the rationale

‘Understanding breeds compliance’ – if people know why they are doing something, they are more likely to meaningfully engage. Explain your decisions and make sure that people understand how their role fits within the wider organisation and its mission.

  •     Give feedback

Provide constructive and informative feedback. Often people do not receive much feedback and when they do, it is too general and unhelpful in guiding future behaviour. Create an atmosphere where you and the team member can freely discuss problems and solutions. The aim is to facilitate learning rather than telling them what to do.

  •     Ask good questions

“Good coaching is about asking good questions that promote learning and listening to others’ voices,” says Associate Professor Mallett. “If you don’t get the right answer, you need to ask better questions. A general sequence might be, ‘What did you do well? What is one thing you could do better? How are you going to do that better? How do you want me to help you?’ That approach shifts responsibility for learning back to the athlete and promotes self-determination and trust.”

  •     Respect them as people

Asking questions and seeking people’s opinions also makes them feel valued. “Always acknowledge the feelings and perspectives of others,” says Associate Professor Mallett. “Show them that you are willing to seek out and respect alternative points of view and that their voice is important.

“Treat them as individuals and spend time getting to know them. Great coaches show they care and take an interest in people beyond sporting performance.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019