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Managers – Learn from Athletics

One of the most common analogies used by executives is sports.  So much so, that it has become a cliche with people throwing around empty phrases like, “step up to the plate” to refer to being opportunistic, “home run” and “slam dunk” to refer to big victories and easy outcomes respectively, and “throw a Hail Mary pass” for a low percentage attempt to change results, among others. However, there are real lessons that managers can learn from seeing how managers or coaches in sports approach situations and develop strategies in response to them.

Auburn vs. Alabama

Last weekend saw two very competitive teams play a college football game that is being heralded as one of the best finishes games ever with a finish to the game that has been seen over and over ( However, leaving the athleticism of the players aside for the moment, the study of the coaches and how they approached the last play of the game is illustrative.

Nick Saban, the Alabama Coach, is heralded as one of the finer football coaches with a very impressive record of successes at many of the institutions and teams he has coached.  Gus Malzahn, the Auburn Coach has had a series of successes himself, but is not as highly regarded by most casual fans.  Their two teams confronted each other with Bowl Game invitations on the line and a possible National Championship in the balance.  However, their reputations became less important than their actions as their hotly contested game was coming to a close.

The Alabama team decided to try to kick a very long field goal in an attempt to either win the game on a very low percentage attempt, or allow the game to continue into overtime should the attempt fail.  Given that Saban believed the likelihood of the kick being blocked was higher than Auburn being able to return a potential missed kick over 100 yards to score themselves, he sent players more physically suited to blocking and protecting the kicker than in being able to tackle a speedy runner attempting to run back a kick.  Mazahn, of Auburn, placed one of his better return specialists near the goal line in the event of a missed kick to attempt to return it.

As most sports fans know, Auburn was able to return the failed field goal attempt with time expiring in one of the most improbable and exciting finishes to win the game.  However, the important management lessons within the game are as follows:

  1. Managers as coaches.

    Managers as coaches.

    Consider all likely outcomes and probabilities before taking action.

  • Saban did not seriously consider the likelihood of missing the kick and having it lead to a need to tackle an Auburn player.  His thinking did not seem to entertain or include anything beyond his own team’s actions (protecting the kicker, but not how Auburn might respond or react).
  • Malzahn, likely, did not expect that his team would be able to return a missed field goal, however, he gave his team every opportunity to take advantage of the chance to do so by positioning his players to execute “in the unlikely event” that they had that possibility.
  1. Taking responsibility for outcomes
  • Saban’s comments after the game seemed to blame the players for lack of execution (missing the kick and failing to make the tackle needed to ensure the game went into overtime if it could not be won), rather than acknowledge he had not taken the necessary steps to prepare for the outcome that eventually occurred.  He accepted none of the blame (but has a reputation for taking credit for wins).
  • Malzahn allowed the players on his team to be celebrated for their performance (as opposed to taking credit for the “smarts” to prepare for the missed kick).

While it is often a “go to analogy” for too many situations in business, to the point of sometimes being tuned out; every now and again – sports really can teach us the good and bad for how to think about our managerial skills.

David Zahn