Player to coach
Editorial

Player to coach

Feted as heroes for their almost superhuman talents, professional sports stars win the love of the crowd with their sublime skill and match-winning performances. But on the side-line waits the person who engineered the performance, who chose the team and outlined the strategy that brought success – the coach.

There are many similarities between the sports team and the marketing team. As a marketer, you will be eager to make your mark, push forward new ideas and strategies, and generally show that you are the best in your field.

With a few years’ experience under your belt – and some successful, even award-winning, marketing campaigns to your name – there is every chance you will move into management. But the transition from battling it out on the front line to orchestrating and organising is not always easy.

There are parallels and important lessons to be gained from the world of sport. Here, we talk to four sports coaches who have taken the similar step from player to coach.

Karen Brown on ego

“As a player, you are selfish. It is all about you, that is how it has to be,” says Karen Brown. She remains the most capped female hockey player in the world, and has been assistant coach to the Great Britain hockey team for the past 10 years.

 “Players need to focus on themselves. Yes, it’s a team game, but it is how you operate within that team. Our job as coaches is to make those individuals fit together in the most effective way. You have to leave your ego at the door when you coach.”

Marketing managers who have come up through the ranks should take note. It’s no longer about playing an important part in the campaign – coming up with some killer creative or a key insight into the results of some market research – but assessing the input of others without showing favouritism to your own contributions or those of your favourite colleagues.

Steve Harmison on delegation and keeping calm

One man at the start of his coaching career is Ashes cricketing hero Steve Harmison. The fast bowler, who was part of Andrew Strauss’s victorious team in 2005, is one of the most reluctant heroes on the modern sports circuit. He still plays a part in the England cricket set-up, offering words of wisdom to England’s current crop of young guns, but most days he can be found on a cold, wet pitch at ninth-tier Ashington Football Club, in Sunderland.

Harmison is in his first full season as a football manager and already he is learning fast. He has just told a player that he will be benched for the next fixture and the player is sulking at the edge of the pitch. “He might not like the decision,” says Harmison, “And he has every right to question it, but it is a decision I made for the good of the team.”

He is also happy to delegate, one of the toughest skills that a modern day manager can master. He lets his assistant coaches take the warm-up and preliminary skills sessions while he takes individual players aside to speak about specific points.

During the match, he stays calm and measured, unwilling to let fly with verbal bouncers in the style of many managers. “What’s the point?” he says. “For me, managers should manage. They should observe, take information in and make decisions. If something needs to be said, then I will say it.”

Calmness has always been Harmison’s watchword. He was never a shouter. “The moment you lose your temper, you lose control. That is why I never shout at players in a match. If you shout at someone inside 20 minutes of a match, they will feel uncomfortable for the whole 90 minutes.”

For Harmison, the most important quality he can bring to management is an ability to talk to his players and get the best from them. “I never responded well to being shouted at as a player, so that is not how I manage.”

In high-pressure situations, it’s all too easy for tempers to get out of hand. Marketing managers that can keep calm and motivate the team in a positive way despite difficulties and the time-critical elements of the job will reap dividends – better campaigns and a better relationship with colleagues.

Paul Collingwood on creating a learning environment 

Also playing in that 2005 Ashes team was Paul Collingwood. A decade later, he is the most capped one-day cricket international in England, and nobody has taken more catches. Now he is England’s batting and fielding coach, but he says his philosophy is to be an enabler, not an educator.

 “My motto is to create an environment for the player to learn as quickly as possible, rather than telling them what to do. I can’t tell Jos Butler how to do a reverse sweep… I never had the skills for that myself, but I can create a situation where the guys can teach themselves a lot quicker. You‘ve got to make mistakes to learn from them.”

Authoritarian marketing leaders who spend too much time micro-managing can find that their teams become dependent on them. They end up having to make every little decision and coaching their colleagues through each little change. Collingwood’s suggestion about creating a learning environment is a great way to avoid this trip.

Jen Wilson on team performance

Jen Wilson is a former South African international hockey player who now coaches English National league side Canterbury and the Scottish national hockey team. Her words as a sports coach will no doubt resonate with marketers: “A player uses all their qualities to contribute to a team performance and a coach takes every player’s qualities and develops them so the good outweighs the poor.

 “A good coach blends the individuals into a system that works for that team, to encourage the desired outcome. It's like baking a cake in a sense, the players are the ingredients, all very different but so important to the final product. And the coach is the baker that blends it together and bakes it to achieve the best possible outcome.”

Some people are team players, others prefer working on their own, but a few are only in it for personal glory. Creating a harmonious whole by bringing together the efforts of very different individuals is bread and butter work to a good marketing team leader.

Three things marketers can learn from sports coaches

1. Delegation is difficult.

Can you accept that other people can do things to the same standard as you? Can you let go and accept that everything will continue to work without your constant vigilance? The work might not be completed in exactly the same way as you would have done it, but you have to give teammates the opportunity to grow and develop their own ways of doing things.

2. It’s ok not to have all the answers.

At first you might feel you should know the answer to every question. At some point you will realise that it’s alright to get the answer from another source, or spark a conversation that helps colleagues discover the answer for themselves.

3. Consistency is essential.

You might have a favourite teammate, but as a coach/manager, it is important that everyone has equal billing and the chance to grow as part of the team.

Sarah Juggins Freelance Writer and Journalist
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