Sport Psychology: Leadership (Part 1)

In this episode, Gary and Nathan talk about leadership lessons from sports that have utility beyond that industry. They speculated about the opportunity to view sporting events with the intent of consuming lessons about leadership as much as a source of entertainment.

There are many articles and books on leadership in business because the demand for this wisdom is pervasive and enduring.  Case studies are especially valuable in promulgating lessons learned because they provide evidence for claims that may or may not be valid. Authors vary in their ability to engage readers in these case studies because of the quality and relevance of the stories they tell. Even the best and most enduring content, however, can become dated. While there surely are some timeless lessons about leadership, learning and applying those lessons often requires sensitivity to contemporary cultural context and inter-personal expectations.

Nathan pointed out that sports are powerful because they provide the opportunity for the audience to experience the context for the behavior of leaders as it unfolds. Sports fans notice different aspects of this context, they make idiosyncratic meaning of it based on their own prior experiences, and they compare and contrast these observations and meaning with that of other fans. Sporting events are ubiquitous in the media as live entertainment, through news and commentary, and increasingly through crowd-based entertainment that is derivative on sports (e.g., fantasy leagues). Irrespective of the imprimatur of the observers and commentators, sports thus have a singular opportunity for powerful influence on how the general public thinks about leadership and almost certainly on the behavior of fans in their own personal and professional lives.

Gary and Nathan discussed the value of comparing coaches beyond merely trying to identify a particular coach as good and bad. They talked about coaches who were contemporaries, more or less, as well as coaches across time and across levels of high school, college, and the professional leagues. The importance of context shines through these comparisons. What are the competencies, limitations, and needs of individual athletes? How does this differ across age and level of maturity? What was the style of the predecessor coach? How does the leadership style in sports relate to the broader socio-cultural values and demands of the time?

The conversation touched on the relationship between individual motivation, performance, and adaptability. Gary and Nathan referred to some behavioral and social science that speaks to these issues in deep ways. In particular, they highlighted the work of Maslow and Bandura, as well as schools of thought such as existential psychology and self-determination theory, in emphasizing the balance between individual initiative and accountability to a team with respect to a broader value system. In this regard, Gary talked briefly about his work with the U.S. Army on leader development and adaptability, and Nathan talked about his work with adolescents both in the classroom and in sports.

Nathan and Gary continued the conversation in the following episode on Science to Business.

Listen to other episodes about Sport & Exercise

Listen to episodes from the first season, entitled "Science in the Wild."

Some Interesting Reads

Chapin, D., & Prugh, J. (1973). The Wizard of Westwood: Coach John Wooden and His UCLA Bruins. Houghton Mifflin.

Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004). What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden's teaching practices. Sport Psychologist, 18, 119-137.

Gewan, B. (2006). In Pursuit of Perfection. By Geno Auriemma with Jackie MacMullan. New York Times Book Review, 111(10), 22.

Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2006). Sacred hoops: Spiritual lessons of a hardwood warrior. Hyperion.












Gary Riccio

As a partner and as a consultant, I deliver value by identifying, aggregating, and developing previously undervalued assets--people and systems, internal and external, public and private, scientific and technical--for exceptional impact.