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Motivation Can Spur Business Success, Too

As most college football fans know, the Northwestern Wildcats didn’t make it to the 1996 Rose Bowl on talent alone. Much of the credit for the team’s success goes to coach Gary Barnett, who convinced players to believe in their success and fostered an environment in which success could flourish.

The same motivational strategy can translate to the working world if managers practice positive thinking and help employees develop their potential.

Increasingly, companies are asking managers to do just that by doing more coaching and less supervising. Meanwhile, employees are being assigned to cross-functional teams and finding they’re dependent on their colleagues’ performance to get their jobs done, just like players on a football field.

With that in mind, we asked two of the nation’s most successful women’s basketball coaches to share their strategies for managing and motivating. Many dynamics also apply to the workplace: setting realistic goals, increasing skill levels, accepting differences among colleagues and handling confrontation effectively.

Pat Summitt, coach of the Lady Vols, the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee, in Knoxville, who has clinched three NCAA championships during her 21-year tenure: “Sports are about life - working with other people, being accountable and disciplined, handling success or failure, accepting your role in the group, setting goals. The skills you need to be successful in sports are the ones you’ll need for life and business.

“It’s important for coaches to set a high standard and establish goals that challenge people. So many times in athletics you get what you expect. I’ve had teams that weren’t as talented as others, so it became a science of figuring out ways we could be successful and getting players to understand that they may have to overachieve for us to win. They might not be as quick or strong physically, but they could learn to play a position hard and smart.

“Companies need to set standards. As a manager, you can challenge people to utilize their strengths, but you also can challenge them to develop their weaknesses by giving them projects where they haven’t had a lot of success. You help them work at it, and you talk about persistence.

“It’s also important for a coach to help teams communicate effectively in confronting interpersonal issues and respecting differences. And you must expect success. We expect players to perform at a certain level and win. It instills a positive attitude in them, but they shouldn’t assume they don’t have to work. You must work to make it happen.”

Jody Conradt, head coach of the Lady Longhorns, the women’s basketball team at the University of Texas, in Austin, and a member of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s International Coaching Hall of Fame: “A coach must create an environment where players have a personal investment in the team because they believe it’s their team, not the coach’s team. And that environment must include placing a premium on setting goals the players believe in and working hard to achieve them.

“That’s the first step. The second step is to help each player find her role in the group process. Not everybody can be a star or score points or do the things that will get them recognized in the media or by the casual observer. But players who are consistent and can be counted on to fulfill their role are valuable. They need to know that their contributions are appreciated.

“The third step is to cultivate trust among the players. You have to believe that if you do your job, everybody else will do theirs, and together you’ll get the job done. You have to feel that if you take a risk, you’ll be backed up by your teammates.

“I don’t think motivation is about the coach going in and giving a rousing speech. But some teams need a coach who can sell them a winning attitude. A big part of coaching is being able to sell people on what you want them to believe, that you can perform at the highest level and win. Because once you get to a certain skill level, the intangibles become critical and mean the difference between winning and losing.”

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