Why sports is the best place to learn about awesome people practises and what all can you learn ?

7 min readMar 5


We will first make the argument for sports – why its the best place to learn about awesome people practises. Then we will see what are the things we can learn. In the end, I will share one of my favourite people metrics that comes from the world of sports.

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Why is sports the hardest job when it comes to people practises ?

Because in sports its all about people. The biggest resource in sports is people.

Think about it. A company has many levers to drive its organisation goals. People is just one of them. As compared to that, people is the single biggest and most important asset in a sports team. Everything else is secondary. This means that successful sports teams have to get their people strategy and practises absolutely right. They have to create sustainable competitive advantages using their people strategies. There is no other way to win.

Given that everyone else is also working on a people driven plan, creating a unique differentiated plan is incredibly hard. So the teams which have managed to achieve long term differentiation are like the Apples of People Strategy.

There are other reasons which compound this difficulty. They have to do with the fact that in general, the management jobs in sports are the toughest.

In Sports, you always know whether you did well or not

As they say, the scoreboard never lies. In the corporate world, you can always twist. some metric and create a narrative of success. You are loss making, no problem. Our MAU’s have doubled. It’s very hard to do that in sports. It about wins and trophies. Nothing else matters. You could sometimes get a longer leash like Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia Sixers but lack of winning always catches up to you. You can’t hide in sports.

Most of the data and best practises are public knowledge

There is an entire industry of analysts and sports nerds dissecting every player and their every action on and off the field. Strategies and game plans are being broken down on a million blogs and shows and podcasts. All the performance data is public information. Even the practises get reported about. This means sports teams have to constantly keep evolving and getting better. It’s a much harder situation than the opaqueness that exists in the corporate world.

It’s a dog eat dog world

It’s a zero sum game. For someone to be successful, someone has to be a loser. Managers and coaches have the worst job security and highest stress levels. The money is great but only if keep producing the right results.

Everyone knows everyone’s salaries and egos are the biggest

In addition to performance data, even the salaries are public knowledge. These players have the biggest egos in the world by default. The difference in salaries ( also media attention, playing time etc ) has the potential to drive serious rifts and create combustible disharmony. Even when data shows difference in performance. And that’s the reason why people like Phil Jackson and Carlo Ancelotti are literally ego management and team chemistry savants.

Money can’t buy titles

In case you were wondering that money can solve most people problems, let me remind you that all US sports operate with a salary cap with massive penalties for going over the limit. Even European football has fair play play rules connected to money. There was a time when money spoke and big market rich teams like the New York Yankees dominated, the modern era is very different.

Media rights have given money to the smaller teams and smart small market teams have started to win with a combination of scouting, coaching and team chemistry. Before you counter that the Moneyball Oakland A’s never won anything, let me remind you that Moneyball is the most famous book about an analytics driven sports team, not the story of the most successful smart team. That honour goes to teams like the San Antonio Spurs and the New England Patriots. And by the way, the Yankees haven’t won since 2009.

The two richest teams in football, Manchester City and PSG are yet to win the Champions League

So,we established two things. Sports is all about people. Sports is one of the hardest management jobs. Together, they establish sports as the hardest testing ground for people strategies.

What all can people leaders learn from sports ?

The biggest advantage is how they track and use data

Today, all the footage of games and their data is publicly available. The high stakes and high fan interest in sports has also created the most evolved and sophisticated data analytics industry. They measure and analyse everything. and create the most cutting edge tracking techniques and metrics. It attracts the most talented data people and MIT hosts a sports analytics conference every year.

Most people leaders struggle with measuring intangible things like impact of coaching and team chemistry. Sports teams on the other hand have figured out most of this stuff.

The best part is that they have married the best of traditional eye tests and player scouting with modern technology and data science. Thanks to video analytics technologies, we can track and create data for things coaches can see through their mind and what they value through intuition. And busted quite a few biases along the way. Its the equivalent of tracking data for some of the golden principles we have about culture in organisations and creating sophisticated analytics for it. Imagine a video analytics system which tracked people’s body language and other verbal cues in team meetings and gave you insights about chemistry and bullying.

The largest repository of great case studies for each aspect of people strategy

If HBR has the best business case studies, then the world of sports has the best. collection of people case studies. Everything about people is covered.

Scouting for talent

This is essentially Moneyball. Thanks to analytics, more and more teams have ignored the traditional player evaluation metrics to find diamonds in the rough. This is the equivalent of ditching IIT/IIM and FAANG tags and finding great tech/product talent.

Developing talent through coaching

You find raw but cheap talent and create an infrastructure to develop them, enhancing their value in the process. The farm system in baseball is a great example. The San Antonio Spurs had the best shooting coach in Chip Engelland. Thanks to him they could take any player with raw physical talent and turn him into a competent shooter. This is exactly what Zoho has done in developing tech talent.

You can also take good players and coach them on specific things to make them very good or even great. The great LeBron James has added so many skills over the years by hiring specialist coaches to work on specific areas of his game. He developed his shooting and his low post game to go from superstar to a contender for GOAT.

The role of Culture and Teamwork

Sports is full of examples where the whole is much much bigger than the sum of its parts. And vice versa also, where a team of superstars hasn’t been good enough. The key ingredient being team chemistry. My favourite example is the Detroit Pistons team which won the 2004 NBA title without any bonafide superstar. They comfortably defeated the Lakers of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Creating a People Strategy

There are examples where teams have beautifully married their scouting, player development and coaching with their playing style to create a powerful people innovation stack. The Barcelona sides with their Cruyffian philosophy and La Masia academy are possibly the best example.

You don’t know where you can create an advantage

I couldnt think of a title for this. But essentially AC Milan mastered the art of extending playing careers by having a great medical team. This gave them an advantage on the pitch and off it. Many players wanted to go to Milan for this reason.

The Art of building a team

Arguably, this could have been part of team chemistry. But I wanted to cover this separately. This is about how teams find players with complementary skills. There are so many small partnerships within a team. The left winger and the left back in football. The two guards in a basketball backcourt. You find so many examples where one partner covers up for the other’s weakness or enhances their strengths, making for a very effective partnership. Great sports teams pit a lot of thought into this and often get most of their partnerships right and as a result have very few weaknesses as a whole. I rarely this being practised in the corporate world.

My favourite sports stat

It’s called plus/minus and it’s from NBA basketball. It’s simple and yet extremely elegant. It’s used to measure a player’s impact on the game, represented by the difference between their team’s total scoring versus their opponent’s when the player is on the court. It has many variations also like best 5 man units. There is also adjusted plus/minus which. reflects the players impact after controlling for the strength of every teammate and every opponent during each minute he’s on the court.

Once you have a reasonable sample size, plus/minus helps captures the intangibles a player brings to the team quite objectively. The 5 man plus/minus shows the impact of chemistry. I personally believe that this metric can be tweaked and applied to the corporate world.