Why do we bother with Sporting Analogies?

When I started this blog, it was initially at the prompt of one of my kids, who thought I should share some of my sporting (and particularly tennis) knowledge – he has a somewhat rosy view of my sporting knowledge!

The last phase of my career started as a result of my selling the idea of coaching a failing team to a client, who had a particularly thorny problem of a failing change programme, which, as he described it, had lost eight of it’s nine lives, and just about anything that could have gone wrong had done!

As it happened, the combination of inner game coaching and, as I later discovered, a form of action learning exceeded both my and the clients’ expectations in turning around the programme, in the process of which a set of dysfunctional groups across a number of locations were transformed into a cohesive team, which delivered to plan and under budget.  The approach has since been refined and used in a number of contexts, principally in financial services.

While action learning initially came from an academic context, the inner game coaching model was first articulated by Gallwey in the context of tennis.  However, there is plenty of common ground and there are other approaches to change which have similar characteristics, notably Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.

In the latest of Gallwey’s Inner Game books, The Inner Game of Stress he says “while I was helping tennis players learn to improve their forehands, backhands and serves, I was really helping them learn how to perform more effectively on the inside. Learning to learn was more important than hitting the ball in court; learning to overcome fear was more important than winning any given match…. Thus the lessons from sport became fundamental in life.”

Reg Revans, who coined the term ‘action learning’, said Learning-by-doing’ is an insufficient description of what I have been on about these last twenty-five years; it is rather ‘Learning to learn-by-doing with and from others who are also learning to learn-by-doing.

The similarities between the two can be seen from the above quotes, while one of the principal distinctions is that Gallwey focuses on learning from an individual perspective and action learning is about learning together to solve problems. Hence when I sold the piece of work over a decade ago based on a sporting analogy and the former, it was the latter that was at least as relevant.

In sport, whether individual or team sport, improving performance is about overcoming the problems or challenges presented.  This is also true of work – we can pitch up and do the same old job, however, if we are not challenged, it is likely that our performance will decline.  Sport can be useful for some in that it provides a connection or point of engagement for their performance in a work context.  However, good we get at an activity there is always the potential to learn and improve.

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