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Insights and advice to help grow sales in your business

What can we learn from sport about the value of coaching?

Pete Evans 23 Jun 2021

Sales Coaching

Great athletes and sports teams both value the importance of great coaching as it provides them with a clear focus.

For any sports team or individual sports person, a coach is seen as an essential ingredient in their success. The role of a sports coach can be extremely varied, but it involves the following:


  • Providing support and development on skills and tactics to all team members,  new or experienced and the team as a whole.
  • Providing an objective view to help enhance performance. This will be based on observed behaviour, both in training sessions and during matches. In professional sport, coaches will be using a great deal of data and evidence to support their coaching and this data is invaluable in helping support top performance.
  • Helping those involved in top-level sports deal have the right mindset to deliver consistent results in a highly competitive environment where the stakes are extremely high.

In professional sport, such as rugby, teams often have a head coach and then specialist skills coaches who coach on one specific area of the game or team, such as a forwards coach, a backs coach or a kicking coach.


In professional sport, coaches have to take professional qualifications to become a coach and the elite coaches are always investing in their own development to learn not only from the best in their sport but by speaking to leading coaches in other sports.


Top sports people and top sports teams recognise the importance of regular, consistent and effective coaching. A new head coach who takes over from a previous coach does not bring a magic wand with them and the same applies to sales.


So, what can we learn about sales coaching from sports coaching?


The most important part of a sales manager’s role is to coach, not manage. Yet according to data from Objective Management Group (OMG), only 7 per cent of sales managers have the necessary skills to coach their team.


In business, great salespeople often get promoted into sales leadership positions. But just because someone is a great salesperson, doesn’t mean that they will be a great sales manager or a sales coach. Businesses often fail to equip their sales managers with the relevant skills that enable them to coach effectively. Yet in professional sports, coaching qualifications are mandatory.


As Trish Bertuzzi wrote in Chapter 19 of 'The Sales Development Playbook'; “Coaching is not a component within the sales manager role; managing is now a component of the new coaching role.” I wonder how different the quality of coaching would be if all sales managers were called sales coaches?


It is an opportunity for salespeople to learn, develop new skills, practice in a safe environment and it helps re-enforce skills learnt in traditional classroom training.


So, let’s break it down and see what we can learn from sports coaching.


Skills coaching


This is where the manager can both observe and provide feedback on a team member’s sales skills. This can focus on areas such as discovery calls, presentations, handling objections, closing deals. This skills coaching can re-enforce classroom training that has been provided previously.


Role plays can also help with ensuring that salespeople are mastering skills as it provides a safe environment to practice what is being learnt, before applying it in calls with prospects. Lots of sales managers are reluctant to conduct role plays due to push back from their salespeople. Most salespeople don’t like doing role plays as it makes them feel uncomfortable and pushes them outside their comfort zone.


As a manager and a sales coach, if you don’t do role plays, then you are allowing your salespeople to practice on your prospects and customers which is a very expensive form of practice.


Imagine a professional sports team that turned up week after week at the stadium to play matches and hadn’t practiced. Imagine this same team of professionals made excuses such as we didn’t have time to practice, we couldn’t be bothered, or we don’t see the value in training.


Mindset coaching


We know from the research of Objective Management Group (OMG) that 80 per cent of success in sales is due to the mindset of the salesperson. Salespeople often have limiting beliefs that prevent them from implementing sales skills. Often salespeople know what to do, but lack the mindset to execute, carrying around belief patterns which inhibit their success. It is the same in sport and during the last 20 years, elite sports teams have engaged mindset specialists to work with both individuals and teams to enhance performance.


Whilst a business may not be able to invest in a full-time mindset coach, the sales manager can run specific coaching sessions on limiting beliefs, and other factors that get in the way of performance.


Accountability coaching


In sport, this would be aligned to a game plan or tactics. Each week, professional sports teams review their performance from the previous week and use performance metrics to support this type of coaching. For a sports team that wants to win the championship, it is important that they are following the leading indicators as these are the behavioural indicators which predict whether they are going to win the championship. I remember speaking to a leading Rugby Super League coach who told me that during a season, it didn’t matter if the team lost a match, what was more important was the fact that the behavioural indicators were improving. This is where the stats such as tackle count, number of completed sets, offloads, metres made are so important in rugby league.


So, in business, ask yourself what leading indicators you can use to drive accountability.


Deal specific coaching


This helps salespeople increase the win rate of individual opportunities. It can help identify specific strategies for winning a deal and also what skills need to be further developed. This approach is similar to a sports coach helping a half-back in rugby league manage a specific series of plays. Great rugby league coaches don’t focus on the final play which leads to the try. They use a select set of situational factors (position on the field, time on the clock, distance to the try line) to select a play. A try in rugby league comes from calling the right play at the right time to execute the game plan. Likewise, winning deals come as a result of good play-calling throughout the sales process.


Using this more targeted deal specific coaching, managers can help their salespeople close more deals in a shorter timescale. Coaching is more defined and targeted: understand where the deal is on the field of play, then ensure the salesperson is running the right play to move things forward.


For a sales manager, effective and consistent coaching is one of the key factors that will help drive the performance of your salespeople and sales teams.

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