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What can the world of sport teach organisations and the people who work for them?

I heard Dr Mickey Whelan speak at an EMCC event on the subject of ‘Coaching High Performance Sport’. He is a former Dublin Football Manager and Selector with a long list of sporting achievements (Bio).

He also has many academic achievements not mentioned in his Wiki bio. He attained his primary sports education degree in the 1970’s. At the age of 68, he returned to education to do a PhD.  Of all his achievements, I think this impressed me the most. It’s a true testament to his drive and passion for sport and his own development.

I know very little about GAA or any other football for that matter. This is not something I’m necessarily proud of given that my grandfather, Ned Murphy, was a founding member and first chairman of Ballyboden St. Enda’s GAA. If he were still alive today I imagine he would be very disappointed by my lack of interest in GAA and he might have hoped that my interest in the event was based on a desire to learn more about Gaelic football.

Alas, this was not my motivation. Sports coaching is one of the many disciplines that organisational coaches draw on. Having seen the German team decimate the English team during the 2010 World Cup through superior team co-ordination, I have no doubt that organisations have a huge amount to learn from the principles of high performance sport.

This was my motivation; I wanted to learn from Mickey’s experience of facilitating high performing individuals and teams, and I certainly was not disappointed.

Here are some of the key areas he covered and my own thoughts on them.

(1) The Importance of Mindset

Mickey told us about a player he worked with that struggled with weight lifting. He could lift up to a certain weight but could not break that barrier no matter how hard he tried. At one training session, the trainers gave him heavier weights but labelled them as a lower weight.

The player succeeded in lifting them. On realising this, he continued to lift heavier and heavier weights in that session and totally smashed his original weight limit.

I think this is a very real example of something we all do to ourselves at various times in our lives – we get in our own way! What can we do about it? Exactly what Mickey and the team did for this player, test the assumptions we make about our perceived limitations.

So the next time you hear yourself making a limiting declaration about your abilities such as ‘I can’t’ or ‘I’m not able’, ask yourself ‘am I really sure about that?’. If you can’t be tough on yourself, find someone who will help you challenge yourself.

(2) Being Aware of how we Impact on others

Not only do we have the ability to either accelerate or limit our own performance, we can have a similar impact on the people around us. Mickey used an inspiring and thought provoking quote from American football player and coach Woody Hayes: “Humans are capable of far more than they realise…each individuals performance is predicated on what’s expected of him”.

Linked to this Mickey talked about a study carried out in the US in 1968. Teachers at a public elementary school were given the names of students who they were told would achieve rapid, above-average intellectual progress in the coming year.

In fact the students were selected randomly. However the study showed that the selected students did outperform their peers. The study concluded that this was the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the teachers had subtly and unconsciously encouraged the performance they expected to see.

Mickey’s observation was that as a coach he was mindful of his words and actions and how they might impact on others. This message really hit a cord with me because it’s probably one of my most important learning and development points on my journey to be a coach. I used to believe that I had to answer other people’s questions for them.

Thankfully this is not the case. Why do I say that? Well I find when I let others reflect and answer their own questions, the insights they have for themselves about themselves are far superior to anything I could have told them! My job is to ask the right questions and challenge their thinking in a supportive way, not to tell them what to do!

I believe this is a powerful message not just for coaches of any discipline, but for all of us irrespective of our roles in life. In a nutshell, I believe that negative talk is not motivational, it’s limiting. If you want to help someone succeed, focus on their strengths and show them you believe in them. Each of us is fully capable of tapping into our potential and talents when we feel good about ourselves.

(3) The Importance of Support

The importance of having a support team seems to be fully understood and accepted in the sports world. Mickey listed off a range of professionals required for the support team, including a physiologist, nutritionist, psychologist plus 4 or 5 more.

The qualities he required of these individuals included intuition, good communication and listening skills, team skills, willingness to take risks, ability to self-evaluate and passion.  Clarity around roles and responsibilities was also fundamental.

All of these qualities are highly desirable in the world of business. However, speaking from my own experience in organisations, the importance of support is often undervalued. In fact it can be perceived as a sign of weakness rather than a source of renewal and strength.

It took me a long time to realise this for myself. I’ve burnt myself out many times trying to be the hero, because I believed that was what I should do. If an athlete didn’t take care of their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs (by spiritual I mean sense of purpose) they would not perform to their best.

I now realise that the same applies to the rest of us no matter what profession we are in. Repeat after me: ‘If I am not taking care of myself, I am not reaching my potential’. Self-care isn’t an indulgence, it’s fundamental to being the best you can be.

(4) Back to the Future

Mickey reminisced on his childhood. He told us how his mother would give him 3 pence to get the bus to football training in Ringsend. He didn’t spend his 3 pence on bus fare though. He’d run from Cabra to Ringsend and walk back.

He showed us some photos from generations past where children played on the streets of Dublin and explained that if during a game of football the score of one side was obviously stronger e.g  a score of 6-1, the kids would rearrange the team so it was more balanced. His point was that everyone learnt as a result and it raised the game for everyone. He challenged the idea that putting a focus purely on winning is enough.

I also agree that it’s great to win but if you don’t learn and grow in the process you are missing a huge opportunity. How often do organisational teams rearrange themselves to get the best out of people? I’ve seen a lot of re-org’s in my time but they’ve been about business strategy rather than leveraging the strengths and talents of the people working in the organisation.

Jack Welch’s vitality model which assumes a certain percentage of the organisation is underperforming at any point in time seems to be a more prevalent view of how to get the best out of a workforce. I could talk for hours on why I disagree with this. So maybe I’ll get into that in another blog!

Mickey spoke for an hour and had lots more wisdom to share with us around building expertise, the importance of discipline, keeping current with new knowledge and challenging traditional thinking. The more I reflect on his talk, the more I get from it and the more I see the parallel between building performance in sports and organisations. I hope I have passed on some of that food for thought.

What’s really unexpected for me is that it’s got me writing again. It’s been over a year since I wrote my last blog. I reckon Ned would be very proud that it was Dr Mickey Whelan and the GAA that inspired me to get writing again!

/ Leave a comment / 5 comments

Filed under: Business Coaching,Business Strategy,Change,Teams


  1. Ellie says:

    Nice article. Reminds me of the book I’ve read on coaching “The Inner game of Work” – good read as he originally wrote it about tennis and was a tennis coach (can’t remember the author).

    Sport is a mind game so if you can break through the barriers for your body, it leads to better performance. Very similar in business.

  2. Isolde Norris says:

    Glad you liked the article Ellie. You are thinking of Tim Gallwey. He talks about our Self 1 that can get in the way of our Self 2 which represents our innate talents and motivations.

  3. Clare says:

    Wonderful post, Isolde. Delighted to see you blogging again. Clare

  4. Isolde Norris says:

    Thanks Clare:)

  5. Phelim Conway says:

    Enjoyed the read. Mickey is coming to Galway tomorrow to do a session with our u10 team team. How lucky are we? really looking forward to it.

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