Sports Psychology Finds a Niche in the Workplace

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR May 16, 2011
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“You really hit that one out of the ballpark.”

“Let’s touch base.”

“We’re going to build a winning team.”

It’s not uncommon to hear these types of references in a business environment. The reverse is also true, notes Lee Igel, clinical professor of sports management at New York University. “Businesspeople tend to use sports references, and athletes tend to use business references,” Igel notes. “They all secretly want to be each other.”

That crossover between the playing field and the boardroom might represent opportunities for HR consultants who have backgrounds and interests in sports principles.

Perspectives on the Sports/Business Relationship

Jim Taylor has practiced sports psychology for about 25 years and has worked with Olympic teams and athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB, PGA and other leagues. His background in sports and psychology makes him only one of about 25 people with his specific focus. A former internationally ranked alpine ski racer, he’s also a second-degree black belt, certified tennis coach, marathon runner and Ironman triathlete. Success in sports—and in the business world, Taylor says—is about much more than performance and ability. Often it’s what’s “in our heads” that keeps us from achieving the success that we dream of.

Sports principles can certainly apply, and HR consultants can take advantage of these opportunities by bringing certain elements of the playing field into the workplace, Taylor says.

“Most everybody is either an athlete of some sort or a spectator,” Taylor says. In addition, he notes: “What I’ve found in my crossover work between sports and business is that businesspeople see themselves as performers and many see themselves as world-class performers. So, they totally identify with and relate to world-class athletes.”

Dave Jennings is a trained sports psychologist who has been consulting for Fortune 500 companies for 13 years. He conducts high-potential leadership training for Microsoft. Jennings pursued a degree in sports psychology with the intent of studying the field from a business focus. “My angle was that peak performance is a fully transferable skill and it does not matter what discipline,” he says. Jennings has coached athletes, musicians, executives and managers. The principles apply consistently across all areas of performance, he says. That said, Jennings emphasizes that the coaching and counseling need to go beyond sporting principles. “One concern I have with some sports psychologists coming at this is they’re really trying to make it all about sports. They need to understand business enough [to recognize] that sports and business are not the same thing,” he says. “The skills are transferable, but not all the skills of sports transfer into business.”

In business settings, consultants need to be focused on solving business problems, he notes. “If I can come at it from a business problem point of view, then we can introduce other ideas into it,” he says.

Taylor says all of the mental areas that are relevant in the sports world are relevant in the business world—motivation, confidence, stress, focus, emotions and ego. The concept of team is also prevalent in business.

Applying the Principles

Herb Greenberg is founder and CEO of Caliper, an international management consulting firm. Caliper has conducted extensive research on what makes athletes and businesspeople successful. “We have about 50,000 athletes in our files out of 3.5 million people we’ve evaluated,” he says.

Success in either field, he notes, requires a combination of ability and internal qualities or attributes that have been found to contribute to high levels of achievement, whether playing football or running a multimillion-dollar organization. These qualities include assertiveness, leadership ability, ability to make decisions, ability to take risks, sound judgment, drive and the like. Skills are not enough.

He points to athletes who have been drafted into professional sports and who fail to live up to the expectations the teams had of them. “The vast majority of first-round draft picks, with all of the talent in the world, don’t make it or make it at far below the level they were expected to perform,” Greenberg notes.

That same disconnect between potential and performance is seen in business environments. Coaching principles can be used to help businesspeople meet their own—and their organizations’—expectations.

The first step is helping businesspeople see themselves as world-class performers, not just as businesspeople, Taylor says. “A key message I send is that, whether it’s sports or business—or, for that matter, medicine, surgery, law—all types of performance require fundamentally the same things.”

The types of issues he sees typically involve intra-team conflict, poor productivity attributable to an inability to focus effectively, loss of enjoyment attributable to stress and lowered productivity.

First, he does an assessment to identify clients’ strengths and weaknesses. He uses that assessment to educate them on a range of psychological areas that can impact performance. Many of the processes used to prepare athletes for games can be used by businesspeople, he says.

But, just because somebody enjoyed playing, or enjoys watching, sports doesn’t make them qualified to bring principles from the world of athletics into the business environment. At best, it can make them look foolish. At worst, it can represent a significant disservice to an organization and the individuals in it. “You’re working with people’s minds and mental performance; it’s a big deal,” Igel says.

He adds that it would be like believing that you could help a company create a marketing plan because you like watching ads on television. “There’s a method and a process involved,” he says. The necessary background could be an understanding of sports from the coaching perspective and of what it truly means to be a “coach” in sports. Or it could be training in sports psychology and counseling.

Leveraging the Opportunities

As with any HR specialty, an initial challenge is finding clients. “In any small business, it’s not so much about doing the work, it’s about getting the work,” says Jennings, who focuses primarily on Fortune 100 firms. The challenge is getting that first client. If they are satisfied with the services they receive, those initial clients serve as important referral sources.

It’s an area of increasing interest, say those who practice in this realm. For those with the right background or the willingness to learn new skills and principles, the opportunities can be significant—professionally and personally.

“The principles of sports psychology can be used in all aspects of your life,” Jennings says. “They are good, solid things that make your life easier.”

Taylor agrees. “Sports play a pretty central role in our culture and provide a nice metaphor for understanding performance,” he says. Performance, whether in the business world or the sports arena, can be influenced by HR consultants who have a solid understanding of sports psychology principles, the business world and the shared drivers of high-level performance.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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