Having experienced life in both the locker room and the boardroom, Cody Royle is one firm grounding in saying the latter has much to learn from the former. “You may be skeptical that your business can learn anything from sports; that’s an opinion I hope to change,” writes the Head Coach of AFL Team Canada. “Both have their strengths but only one of those locales truly understand their people.”
By John Portch
Royle, the Australian-born Toronto-based editor at innervoice.life and Buzz Velo, who is also a managing partner of sports media and marketing company NTSQ Sports, has targeted his latest book Where Others Won’t: Taking People Innovation From the Locker Room into the Boardroom at the leaders of the corporate world. Be as that may, the sporting world has also cottoned on to a tome loaded with anecdotes surrounding the actions of some of sport’s finest teams, from the New England Patriots to the New Zealand All Blacks via Leicester City and the San Antonio Spurs.
Leadership, culture and recruitment are high on the agenda of Where Others Won’t but here we focus on its final chapter, ‘The Constant Search for Performance’, and the steps being taken by teams across the globe to prevent the onset of groupthink and the attendant stagnation. Here are four lessons that sport would do well to note.
- Find ways to change the game
During the 2000s Australia were the dominant force in international men’s cricket and they owed it, in part, to a baseball man. The unlikely alliance came when then Australia Head Coach John Buchanan picked up the phone to call Mike Young, formerly of Major League Baseball and then Head Coach of the Australia men’s baseball team.
Royle takes up the story, citing Young’s reflections on that conversation with Buchanan in a local Australian newspaper. ‘He asked me if I could see any things [in baseball] that could be adopted by cricket. I believed there was, and I talked to him about those things.’
Buchanan sought to exploit cricket’s traditional focus on batting and bowling and gain a competitive advantage through the oft-neglected discipline of fielding. That’s where Young came in: ‘I didn’t know the nuances and idiosyncrasies [of cricket]. And I kind of liked that, because I don’t want to know all of that stuff. Then I’d lose my angle, my perspective.’
Gradually, as Royle says, ‘Young transformed how the team ran, threw, slid, caught and prepared to field.’ Young adds: ‘Everything’s in your feet. How you hold your feet really dictates everything about how you’re going to release the ball [when you throw].’
Soon Australia had developed a physical – and psychological – advantage, as opponents were less bold and took fewer risks.
- Look for comparable skills to isolate and utilise for a competitive edge
While there hasn’t always been a seamless transition to the NFL for overseas athletes versed in different football codes, Royle highlights that the last four winners of the Ray Guy Award [awarded to college football’s best punter] have been Australian. ‘While American kids grow up throwing balls, Australian kids grow up kicking them,’ he observes. And college coaches have been quick to capitalise.
Royle cites the example of Arizona State’s ambidextrous former punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, who would keep opponents guessing with this ability to kick off either foot. ‘It will be a game-to-game decision in order to create problems for opponents,’ admitted his coach.
Another Aussie proving the value of cross-pollination of Aussie rules and American football is Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry. The Australian went viral while at East Kentucky when he competed a punt-pass to a receiver immediately after the snap to complete a first down.
- Maintain a healthy thirst for learning
If Mike Young’s success with Australia proved the devil was in the detail, then Alastair Clarkson, the Head Coach of the AFL’s Hawthorn, has taken that notion to its fullest expression. Clutch goalkicking was a staple of Hawthorns three AFL flags in a row between 2013 and 2015 and their proficiency was sparked by their coach’s thirst for new ideas and obsession with the minutiae of performance.
Clarkson has observed elite sports teams in training across the globe and was particularly taken by the footwork of 22-time grand slam-winning tennis star Steffi Graff. ‘Small, soft, delicate steps set up her preparation to strike the ball,’ he noted.
While at the San Antonio Spurs in 2012, his ears pricked up when he saw that they were the NBA’s premier free throw shooting team on a regular basis. A lightbulb went on in Clarkson’s mind, as Royle explains: ‘Having just lost the [AFL] Grand Final due to wayward goalkicking, conversion was something close to Clarkson’s heart. The way the Spurs were able to achieve their remarkably consistent success was by watching, recording, and displaying the results of every free throw taken in practice. Players not only enjoyed the gamification, it helped create an atmosphere of perceived pressure that helped mimic the real-life intensity of a game scenario. Pressure creates diamonds, as they say.
‘Once home, Hawthorn installed a shot clock at their practice facility and began recording and displaying the results of their goalkicking practice. They appointed a coach to focus on goalkicking, including preparation to strike the ball. And it paid off.’
- Try adversity training
The Seattle Seahawks’ training sessions under Head Coach Pete Carroll have become renowned, particularly their ‘Competition Wednesdays’, which promoted levels of adversity similar to what the team would routinely encounter on a Sunday. For the entire session, Carroll would pit members of his roster against each other and was cited as a reason for their late-game decisiveness on the road to Super Bowl success in 2013.
Royle refers to Carroll’s memoir, Win Forever, where he explains that his programs promote the concept of always competing. ‘It is his belief that this competitive mindset in all facets eventually manifests on the field,’ he writes.
Carroll adds: ‘We would compete in new ways to raise the level of the competition in practice each day. Whether it was through entertainment, practical jokes, or straight up competition, the program I would lead would always be in a relentless pursuit of a competitive edge.’
To learn more lessons in leadership, culture and recruitment from the great and the good of world sport read Where Others Won’t: Taking People Innovation From the Locker Room into the Boardroom. Widely available from CreateSpace.