Three lessons in team dynamics that business could teach sports


Didier Marlier

February 17, 2017

From Disruption to Engagement

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Since the end of 2016, I have had the chance to be invited to support teams or players both in Ice-Hockey and Football. Three months into this part-time activity, I realize that there are at least three things successful Business Leaders can bring to Sport Coaches. It should be of interest to those who seek to create a culture that will foster a sustainable engagement and see people breaking the ceiling of their self-imposed limitations, both in business communities and sports teams.

  • Kill the fear!: back in 1998, when I was analysing the reasons of Brazil’s shock defeat against France in the final of the World Cup, something strong emerged: the belief system of the coaches was completely different when it came to motivation and fear. For the French coach, it was obvious that “killing the fear” was part of his job. The Brazilian coach seemed to believe that stress was a powerful motivator. The rest is History: 3-0 for France and a shockingly visible difference between a team liberated from fear and encouraged to be daring by its leader and another group paralyzed by stress and playing not to lose. In business, Google’s project Aristoteles, seeking to find the Holy Grail of Management (how to explain that some of our teams are successful beyond expectations and others surprisingly fail) showed that the most discriminating factor was Psychological Safety, the absence of fear. Business leaders who create fear around them and use it as a managerial tool will surround themselves by compliance not entrepreneurship, lies and deception not transparency, manipulation, not honesty. Sports coaches who want to bring their teams to the top, should beware the fear factor.
  • Challenge and Support: Psychological Safety is a result not a tool. It is a sine qua non condition for performance but how do you create it? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the “gurus” of motivation. We have slightly reworked  his model (see below). One can see that people (both in sports and corporate world) can find themselves in the Performance Zone (because they are Relaxed/Self-Confident and Excited/motivated), the Stress Zone (Excited/Motivated but Anxious/Lacking Self-Confidence), The Depression Zone (Anxious/Lacking Self-Confidence and Bored/Passive) or the Re-Creation Zone (Bored/Passive but Relaxed/Self-Confident). The question is: How do you get someone who is in the Bored/Passive state to become Excited/motivated? By challenging them, raising the bar, showing that a higher performance is possible, identifying self-limitation and orthodoxies etc… And how do bring someone who fell in the Anxious/Lacking Self-Confidence to be in the Relaxed/Self-Confident box? By supporting, encouraging and tranquillizing them. The levers of Challenge and Support are fundamental for sports coaches and business leaders.


  • Strive on Unconditionality: A few years ago, I was invited into the presidential lodge of a prestigious European football team. The man was deeply upset by the underperformance of his team, in spite of the investment he had made on them. I was very embarrassed at the half-time as I couldn’t spot anything meaningful to tell him about the lacklustre performance of his boys. The light dawned on me during the 2nd half time, as unexplainable hesitations by some of the key players became perceptible. It was impossible to believe that players at that level wouldn’t see a partner ideally positioned to score and hesitate to pass the ball to him. The fact was that most of these players were haunted by the idea of not playing the following game (The World Cup was close and their national coaches wouldn’t invite people sitting on the bench in their respective clubs) and passing the ball to a partner so that he could score would grant him to be playing, not necessarily them. Conditionality is pernicious in the way that it is subtle and hardly visible. Nobody was punished for kicking the legs of their partners. They would just hesitate a second and… lose the ball. The same happens in business. It is called silos, politics, misalignment, internal competition. It is subtle as well: I forget to talk about a joint opportunity, I retain information because I wasn’t aware it could have helped you, I hold my energy back, I criticize you behind your back… It is by aligning objectives, creating a shared and lived purpose, rewarding generous behaviours and firmly rejecting internal competition that sport and business leaders create unconditionality inside their teams.

For decades, Professors, consultants and trainers have (and should continue) used the sports metaphor to illustrate their points with the business community. The reality nowadays is that Business Leaders have a lot to teach to Sports Coaches as well. I enjoy the enormous learning of working in both worlds. Enjoy your leadership journey, should you be a Sports Coach wondering how to bring your team to the maximum of their capacities or a Business Leader reflecting on how to engage your people into the Disruption Economy.


  1. Adrien Plavsic

    Great article Didier! Really love this one!

    • Didier Marlier

      When such a comment is coming from n Olympic Silver medallist and ex NHL player, you can imagine that it makes my day dear Adrien… Thank you!

  2. François

    Great article Didier and great model…an other key benefit of psychological safety is that it create the condition for people development as they have no fear to operate out of their comfort zone and grow…

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you François… I fully support your point on psychological safety and its results. Thank you!!!

  3. gerson oliveira

    Once again, great reflection Didier!
    Experience shows that stress and fear could, sometimes, bring some short term results.
    Whereas cooperation and trust keep ambiance and the team excited.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you for another much appreciated comment Gerson. Stress and fear shorter lived than psychological safety? That is a really interesting thought! Thank you

  4. Herberto Macoto Yamamuro

    Dear Didier , Good points you focused in this article . I just read the book of ` Leadership ` written by Michael Moritz about more than ten years of Coach Alex Ferguson of Manchester United , and one memorable lesson Ferguson pointed out is his almost obsession in get details of each member of team from technical and psychological/behavior as well as the teams in competition . He showed a strong support behind the players studying by Data Analysis his each decision. He is absolutely realistic to not trust in his magic talent .

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you Herberto,
      I was not aware of the book, nor of Sir Alec’s habit. I guess a psychologist would indeed record every possible data point of behaviour and build their support coaching sessions from there. Behaviours are a safer bet than “magic talent”, you are right 🙂 Thank you!


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