Sales Coaching Blog

Sales Management Lessons from an Olympic Coach

Posted by Bill Eckstrom

July 31, 2012

describe the imageMy wife loves the Olympics.  From the opening ceremonies to the closing, she will be glued to every race, jump, throw, dismount, moment of celebration and falling agony.  And, while the events are entertaining to me, what intrigues me most is rarely broadcast or discussed—the relationship of the coach to the athlete. 

The role of the coach is the most significant external resource an athlete possesses that ultimately determines how far they go.  During Olympic competition, my understanding is that every athlete, not just teams, has a coach if not several that will be at their side to assist in maximizing their performance.  There will likely be their technical coach, but also a sports psychologist to which they have access to ensure the mental aspect is addressed. It is interesting to watch the performer/coach interaction and I pay close attention to post performance debrief.  Though you can’t hear what is said, body language hints to part of the story.  Very few will forget the interaction between Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi and Kerri Strug when on an injured foot, she vaulted the team to gold.  But, upon landing her final vault she exacerbated the injury and stood in stoic form, one foot dangling from injury, acknowledging her jump to the judges.  Unable to walk to receive the gold medal, Bella carried Kerri to the platform like a small child who had fallen from the playground climbing bars.  Perhaps the finest moment between player and coach I’ve ever witnessed. (Watch this EcSELL Video that includes the moment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AEHO1gyIu4

At EcSELL’s most recent Coaching Summit, Dr. Peter Jensen (sports psychologist and Canadian Olympic coach) http://peterjensen.ca/ shared with the audience, “the role of the coach is the most important factor in determining how far an athlete can progress and the level to which they can perform”.   I am also immersed in his book The Winning Factor: Inspire Gold-Medal Performance in your Employees (I “read” the book some months ago, but I am now “immersed”, meaning I have returned to his writings; taking notes in the margins, underlining key phrases, putting asterisks at the top of pages, etc.  The take-a-ways are too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say it is the most powerful business book I’ve read).  His insights and practical approach to enhancing performance is not lost on sales.  Dr. Jensen is also a guest professor at the Queens School of Business where he speaks with sales management students.  During a recent phone conversation I inquired about the cross-over from athletics to sales and he let me know that, in his mind, there is no tighter correlation than athletic coaching and sales coaching.

Similar to the Olympics, the role of the coach in sales is something that receives little attention, recognition, understanding or fanfare.  However, unlike the Olympics, in business and specifically on sales teams the impact of the coach is not yet fully understood or captured.  I can honestly make this statement for our research shows there are very few development resources provided by organizations to improve sales coaching acumen. 

In his presentation to our Summit attendees, Dr. Jensen spoke of a “Third Factor” that differentiates the simply good from extraordinary.  The Third Factor very much resembles what EcSELL Institute refers to as the “Catalytic Factor”.  Dr. Jensen’s research shows there are levels of performance that transcend the ordinary when a coach helps to ignite the Third Factor in those they coach. He uses the term as “a way of talking about self-direction and the development of self-awareness and self-responsibility in the people we coach and manage”.  He referred to Five Characteristics of Exceptional Coaches that lead to the ignition of the Third Factor:

  1. Self-awareness, which equips them to assist, not inhibit, the igniting of the Third Factor
  2. Ability to trust, so that the first steps toward gradually attaining self-direction can be taken in a relatively safe and secure environment
  3. Ability to use imagery, to help the person “see” what is possible and thus encourage the process of belief in the self
  4. Ability to identify blocks when they occur, and to help the person take responsibility for dealing with these temporary barriers
  5. Recognizing the importance of adversity, which is critical at some point to determine the strength of the person’s commitment to themselves and their performance.  Learning to embrace adversity and focus on what can be controlled is essential in developing the Third Factor in the performer.

A coach (used as a noun) is easily defined-everyone who has the responsibility of getting a team to achieve a goal is a coach.  In sales departments that likely includes every front line sales manager, Regional Manager, Director, National Manager, V.P., SVP, CSO, etc.  Regarding the role of a coach, in the Olympics it is understandable—to get their athlete(s) to win.  In sales, it’s spectacularly clear—get your team to hit the number!  

If you have the responsibility and accountability to get a sales team to perform, think of your role as one that is more aligned with a coach and not just a manager of tools and processes.  Remember, those on your team will not achieve peak performance without your involvement in their development.

Topics: sales leadership, Accountability Coaching, sales coaching, professional development for sales management, Leadership & Management

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