Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a meeting of the Customer Service Training Network held in London.  We were introduced to the CSTN by their founder, Don Hales, who had enjoyed one of our weekly training tips we sent out last summer.  I was asked if we could expand on the topic of sports coaching and training, and since I love sports, speaking, customer service, and hanging out with training professionals, it was a rare opportunity to combine them all!

High School Basketball

Basketball net

While preparing this talk, I drew heavily from my memories and experiences playing high school basketball.  I went to a very small school and the only sports we could play were the ones we had enough bodies to fill, so that meant basketball, football (soccer), and a short lived stint with volleyball.  I was lucky to have two great coaches, both with very different styles, and it wasn’t until later in life that I realised how much the concepts and skills I learned playing team sports positively impacted my career.

Basketball isn’t a popular sport in the UK, and even less so in Scotland, so the audience got exposure to concepts like inbounding the ball, cutting down the nets, calling a play, and the crowd taunting players by chanting “fundamentals” after missing free throws.  If you're looking for a UK group that understands basketball, the CSTN is a now a good bet!

Just like in sports, if you’re running a training session or attempting to deliver excellent customer service, you need to have clear goals.  There is no popular American sport that can result in a tie.  We like clear outcomes.  This models what we need from a quality training session - you need to be able to define a clear outcome for your students.

Another key point is the definition of some core values.  My coach had very clear values around on the court and off the court behavior.  If you violated them, you sat on the bench or might have to leave the team. It didn't matter if you were the best player or not, and this was a valuable lesson that has stayed with me since.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Stretching runner

Practice is extremely important in team sports, and this is also true for business, and one of the things I learned early on with basketball is that practice doesn’t often look like “the game”.  There are drills and exercises that need to be covered that you may not need or use during the game, but they’ll reinforce valuable concepts.  When you’re designing a training course or training up a customer service department, it’s helpful to use tools like role play, observation (both self observation and observation of others), and reflection.  These may not be employed very much during “game time,” but  they’re all very important to deliver the outcome your’e looking for.

Inspiration and Dreams


Outside of practice, some of the most valuable lessons I learned were on how coaches approached game situations.  Being able to inspire a team and challenge them to dream big is a core competency.  My high school coach used lots of different methods to inspire - during drills he would keep a running commentary going about how our rivals were right now practicing or how a certain rival player was going to beat us if we didn’t work hard.  He wrote letters in advance of big games.  Prior to playing our arch rivals, we’d have a team dinner at his house and watch the inspirational basketball movie Hoosiers (known as Best Shot in the UK).  The end result was that we  dreamed of winning our end of season tournament all year long.  And while these tactics are in some cases sports specific, in many cases they aren’t.  Many of these tactics can apply directly to whatever company or team you’re a part of today.

Believing In Others, Believing In Yourself, Being Believed In

Paper people

My favourite basketball team is the North Carolina State Wolfpack, who well known for a particular coach who won the National Championship in 1983, coining the term “March Madness” in the process.  Jim Valvano was a master at inspiring his teams, and stressed the importance of believing in yourself. His team of underdogs beat a seemingly unbeatable rival in the final game on a dramatic, last second shot which is considered to be the one of the greatest upsets in sports history.  In the video below, you can hear Valvano speaking in his own words on the importance of believing in others, believing in yourself, and being believed in.


The bottom is that through the process of setting goals, practicing, and coaching, a team becomes empowered when it comes time to perform.  Great coaching, therefore, is ultimately great management.  I really enjoyed my experience with the CSTN, there's nothing better than a passionate group motivated to continue the learning process, even if that means learning a bit about basketball!