Clearing up some differences between executive coaching and sports coaching

Coach n 1: (sports) someone in charge of training an athlete or a team 2: a person who gives private instruction (as in singing or acting) 3: a railcar where passengers ride 4: a carriage pulled by four horses with one driver 5: a vehicle carrying many passengers; used for public transport.

Source: WordNet ® 2.0 via

The above, dictionary definition of a coach is interesting because the first reference is to sports coaching. Many coaches who coach leaders, executives, managers, and up-and-coming talent don’t like comparing what they do to what sports coaches do. When people think of the word coach, however, they usually think of sports coaches.

Plus, it is hard to argue with the dictionary when it associates coaching with sports coaches.

Let’s compare traditional sports coaches with executive coaches – coaches who work with leaders, managers, and up-and-coming talent. Such coaches tend to meet with our clients in an office setting, where we sit down in a meeting room and coach. Coaching for us largely entails asking many questions so that clients can determine what to do on their own. We provide advice and observations but try to do so only when clients have exhausted their options.

During the heat of an athletic contest, when most people get to observe sports coaches, we don’t see much of this kind of coaching. Sports coaches are much more active, drawing up diagrams, putting players in and taking them out of the game, calling time-outs, yelling at the referees, giving quick remarks to motivate the players, and shouting as they walk up and down the sidelines. They also have a role in recruiting players, cutting players, and setting salaries.

In other words, sports coaches are primarily managers. They manage games, and depending on their level of authority and relationship with the general manager, they also help manage their team.

Behind the scenes, though, top sports coaches sit down with the athletes on their teams and do indeed coach them. They watch tapes to learn what went well and what the athlete and team can do better. They ask questions and engage in a dialogue to understand the athletes’ perspective about their performance. They make resources available for the player to train and improve, and then they try to connect with the players so that they take accountability for improving their own performance. Some coaches have more of a command-and-control approach, tending to tell players what they need to do. Others are better at engaging the players in a dialogue to understand what drives them, what makes them tick, and how they can take responsibility for improving their own performance.

Coaches who work with executives, managers, and up-and-coming talent can learn from sports coaches, especially the ones who know how to engage their players. Asking a never-ending circle of open-ended questions, as some coaching associations require, is not always the best way for a coach to get results. In real-world coaching, sometimes the coach needs to intervene a bit more proactively as a sports coach might. An effective coach sometimes makes observations, gives tough advice and feedback and, when needed, even gives a firm kick in the pants.

If you manage and coach a team of employees, the lines get even more fluid. Like a sports coach, you wear many hats, depending on your job description and span of control.

Moving away from the sports coach metaphor for a moment, notice the third, fourth, and fifth definitions of the word coach. These definitions focus on the coach as a vehicle. Personally, I like this more traditional definition best. Think of yourself as a railcar or carriage that gets people from where they are to where they want to be. You are a vehicle that moves individuals, teams, and sometimes the people in an entire organization from their current point A to a better point B. There are different ways to move people forward, depending on the situation and how your client responds best. At the Center for Executive Coaching, we help you determine the style and approach that works best for you.

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