SBJ/July 16-22, 2012/Opinion

Why people development is a wise investment for executives

More than 10 years ago, I authored the book “Why Good Coaches Quit; How to Deal with the Other Stuff.” The title could have been “Why Good Leaders Quit,” or sports executives. Good coaches and executives are still quitting. Why?

These people are often asked to do more with less and, by the way, do it a little quicker. Stress is a good thing; it prepares us for action. However, too much stress, and we can break down quickly. At the very least, we begin to make mistakes. At the highest levels of performance, this can be quite costly.

With the challenges facing intercollegiate athletics and professional sports, leaders of our industry are at a greater risk of becoming more insulated, sheltered and isolated. While trying to stay connected, their attempts are often superficial. Communication becomes less meaningful and, as a result, relationships suffer. In an effort to keep up, the most important asset of the enterprise is sacrificed: the people.

While many athletes use sports psychologists to help them with their performance, most sports executives do not. Athletes often spend 80 percent of their time on practice and 20 percent on performance. In business, executives show up the first day and are expected to perform perfectly right away. They rarely take time out for practice, self-development, reflection and recovery.

In my role as a psychotherapist and consultant in sports and business, I am seeing an alarming number of leaders who are overwhelmed, stressed out and increasingly exhausted.

What can we do?

It begins with self-management. The effective management of others is a result of effective management of oneself. (“Want to be a leader? Manage yourself first,” Nov. 22-28, 2004, SportsBusiness Journal). Paying attention to one’s own behavior, increasing self-awareness, will allow for better “in-game” adjustments.

In any area of performance — sports, academics, theater or the arts — sustained optimal performance always comes down to the same thing: making good decisions under pressure. If that’s true, then people must be taught how to think.

Learning environment

Walking through a football practice, I am confronted with two players: the punter and kicker. Both have been struggling with their results and are upset with the head coach. They have been called out in front of the team for poor performance. Feeling embarrassed and angry, they are determined to not let their team down. They will try harder. On their next opportunity, the punter shanks one and the kicker misses an easy field goal. I guess trying harder is not always better.

The Head 'Head' Coach Says

1. Pay attention to your stress level. Stress prepares us for action, but too much causes a breakdown. Breakdowns can be costly.

2. Take time for self-development and recovery.

3. Make your messages meaningful. In an attempt to stay connected through multimedia, our messages can become superficial, causing relationships to suffer.

4. Manage your behavior first to bring out the best in your team.

5. Develop the person first, and improvement in performance will follow.

Neuroscience teaches that managing thoughts, emotions and physiology can affect not only the ability to perform, but also the ability to learn. Fear and anger limit perceptions. Strong emotions, positive or negative, will affect thinking, decision-making and, ultimately, actions and behaviors.

Well-intentioned leaders and coaches who try to motivate by judgment and shame are missing the point. Anger increases the production of stress hormones and ultimately compromises decision-making. It’s not like the punter and kicker are trying to do poorly.

The job of a manager or coach is to bring out the best in others. They must remember how their behavior affects the behavior of others. If the coach wants better results, he must help them. He must manage his own emotions and demonstrate a desire to help, support, encourage and instill confidence. If a coach believes in them as people, the athletes will give their best effort. If they sense that the coach has given up on them, it’s all over.

If an executive is committed to creating optimal-performing teams, he or she must make sure that the culture is consistent with an optimal-learning environment. The critical differentiator to sustained optimal performance comes down to how one manages his or her thoughts and emotions. That’s what people development is about.

People development

Professional sports have and continue to be invested in player development. However, very little is invested in the people side of sports and sports business. While talent and skill are important, they are actually poor predictors of success on their own. It would be like someone who has a high IQ but can’t think on their feet or get along with others.

Develop the person first, and improvement in their performance will follow:

• Invest in the personal and professional development.

• Stress the importance of self-management; everyone is in a position of leadership.

• Help people understand that their behavior is observable by others.

• Provide coaching and support services to encourage learning more about themselves.

Great business leaders, like great coaches, are not only knowledgeable, but they also have the relationships that make others perceive them as steady and clear in moments of crisis.

It is not uncommon for those leaders to insulate themselves. Their inner circles can become very small. Typically, they don’t seek an outside perspective until there is a crisis that forces their hand. Great leaders know how to set aside ego.
Asking for help is not a weakness, but a strength.

Rick Aberman (aberm001@umn.edu), Ph.D., is director of peak performance with the Minnesota Twins and has been a sports psychotherapist and consultant for athletes, executives and teams in sports and business for 25 years.


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