The best sports-flavored TV and movies always interweave with some good lessons. Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at what leaders can learn from some of our favorite Hollywood coaches. This also includes project leaders and culture carriers – not just people managers.
Disclaimer: My list of coaches is very US oriented and predominantly male. There is clearly room for more diversity in the sports genre. That said, there must be tons of worthy fictional coaches out there that I just don’t know about. Join this discussion on the Atlassian Communityto tell me who I missed and what we can learn from them!
Ted Lasso (Ted Lasso)
“I appreciate you. I really do.”
You knew that Coach Lasso would be on the list, right? l
Save yourself the hassle of scrolling and talk about him first. I challenge you to find a coach, on screen or off, who can show better valuation†
He bakes buttery cookies at night and delivers them to the owner of AFC Richmond every morning.
He gives high-fives at every possible opportunity. And to make sure the message gets through, he tells his team and staff directly that he appreciates them.
What makes Lasso extra special is that he focuses on the person, not the action. He understands the difference between ‘I appreciate’ and ‘I appreciate’ you†
What he gets in return is a team that is resilient and loyal, both to their coaches and to each other. So much so, that when an assistant coach shares some uhhh… unfiltered feedback on the team’s performance, the players not only take it to heart, but turn the coach’s tirade into a roast and laugh out loud at themselves.
Mr. Miyagi (the karate kid)
“Learn to stand first. Then learn to fly.”
Mr Miyagi is the epitome of patient mentorship†
His karate student, Daniel, comes to him almost eager to show the bullies of the Cobra Kai dojo what he’s made of. But Mr. Miyagi gently redirects Daniel’s energy toward learning the basics of karate, starting with the most basic of basics like balance and hand-eye coordination.
Only after Daniel has mastered the discrete moves does Mr. Miyagi let them string together into kicks, punches and blocks.
Despite being a black belt himself, Mr. Miyagi never gets frustrated with Daniel as he struggles to learn the more complicated moves. That alone is remarkable!
Once you’ve mastered a skill, it’s incredibly difficult to remember what it’s like to be a beginner. We quickly lose empathy, which can bubble to the surface in the form of annoyance and disappointment. (If you’ve ever tried to teach a kid to ski, tie their boots, or fold laundry, you can probably understand. †
So the next time you’re training a team member a new skill, try channeling your inner Miyagi and take it easy.
Monica Aldama (cheers)
“You keep going until you get it right, then you keep going until you can’t get it wrong anymore.”
Greatness can come from anywhere, even from a small town in central Texas. Monica Aldama, real cheerleading coach at Navarro College and central figure in the Netflix series ‘Cheer’, knows that you don’t need big names or big budgets to win big.
But you do need provision† That’s why her team has won 15 National Cheerleading Association championships since 2000 and holds the record for the highest score in NCA history.
Aldama challenges her team’s athletic prowess with daring acrobatic routines that take weeks to learn, drilling moves to infinity†
When injuries inevitably arise, she is visibly frustrated with the situation, but not with the individual. She treats her athletes with compassion, giving them time to fully heal rather than risk being injured again.
For her, determination means making smart decisions that can test your patience but keep you on track to take home the big prize.
That’s a model worth following as your team experiences a setback: Let them catch their breath and process all the emotions that are floating around, but don’t give them an easier target to aim for. Appeal to their sense of ambition and urge them firmly but gently that they stick with it.
Herman Boone and Bill Yoast (Remember the Titans)
“I don’t care if you like each other or not, but you will respect each other. And maybe… maybe we’ll learn to play this game like men.”
Coaches Boone and Yoast took their Alexandria, Virginia high school soccer team all the way to the state championships. But not before you see the power of Empathy to solve some seriously toxic team dynamics.
Their first year coaching together, in 1971, was also the first year the soccer team was integrated, despite racial segregation in public schools having been banned nearly two decades earlier.
The players and coaches did not come together voluntarily – the decision to integrate was made by the school board. Unsurprisingly, tensions were high.
The black players of the team already knew each other and liked each other. Same for the white players. But each group mistrusted the other. That all changed at training camp.
Coach Boone made sure that white and black players not only sat together in the room, but also really learned from each other, imposing three practice sessions a day until each player could tell him something personal about each other.
The tactic was forceful but effective. By the end of camp, they were a tight-knit team, both on and off the field.
Comparing the dynamics of segregation and integration to—well, to anything, really—is precarious. Still, there are some parallels between the Titans’ story and our modern professional lives.
Think of employees being shuffled and redistributed into new teams as part of a reorganization. Or entire companies brought together through an acquisition. Uncertainty, confusion and even resentment abound. And yet the work has yet to be done.
Launching an empathy-building campaign may be the quickest way to team harmony.
Ken Carter (coach Carter)
“You have achieved something that some people look for all their lives. What you have achieved is that ever elusive victory within.”
The story of Ken Carter, also a real-life coach, and his team shows that people will live up to high expectations if you have the right kind of inspiration†
Carter coached high school basketball in Richmond, California – an industrial city just north of Oakland that was beset with a high crime rate in the mid-2000s when the film is set. He understood that by default, boys in the community felt that after high school they were often limited to one of two paths: crime or sports.
But Carter wanted them to understand that they could accomplish much more. Knowing that only a small fraction of even the most talented players make it to the pros, he was determined to see his boys graduate and have a shot at a college degree.
He made players promise to maintain a C+ average. When their numbers dropped mid-season, he suspended the entire team, forfeited several games and destroyed their undefeated record.
Parents and school board members were outraged and voted to force Carter to end the lockout. But the players refused to play.
Now that they’ve seen what they were capable of from the court, they instead held themselves accountable for their promise and their educational goals.
Six players did indeed go on to college.
By appealing to their long-term interests and sense of self-esteem, Carter inspired his players to give their all, both on and off the field.
The next time you set an ambitious goal for your team, take a page from Coach Carter’s playbook and think about how you can inspire them to achieve things they don’t even know they are capable of.
Sue Sylvester (Glee)
†‘Even in the heat of battle I am elegant, regal. I am Ajax, mighty Greek warrior.”
Cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester is somewhere on the spectrum between selfish savage and outright bully.
Which, to be clear, is not cool†
But credit where credit is due: she nails it up advocacy†
Sylvester fights tooth and nail to give her team the funding and resources they need to succeed.
You are your team’s one-person booster club.
Make sure they see you advocating for them when it comes to budgets, juicy projects, and recognition.