Sports Teams and Work Teams – same or different?

There’s a lot written and said about what teams at work can learn from sports teams. Much of it is inspirational, some of it is useful, and some just doesn’t travel into your average workplace at all. That’s because there are fundamental, but often overlooked, differences – beyond the obvious dress code issues.

Goal clarity

A significant advantage sports teams have over many teams in organizations is clear goals and a finite time in which to achieve them. The whistle will blow. The final will take place. Everyone will know who has won and lost. Sure, there are work teams who may be given goals at work; however it’s my observation that these are very long-term, typically annual. Yes, a sports team wants to win the league, the race or the tournament, but first they’ll focus on winning each match, each game, each race.

Tip: break long-term goals into short-term goals – annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly.


Sports teams know who they have to beat. Opponents loom large in training: top sports team work constantly on their own skills and capabilities, and at the same time take a short-term focus on tactics to limit the next opponent’s strengths and exploit their weaknesses. At work, the concept of opponents shows up in different ways, for example with one team or department trying to outdo another, to the detriment of the organization’s performance. Sometimes, there’s little concept of opponents or competition – say on a very long-term project – making it tough for people to stay motivated day in, year out.

Tips: identify your team’s opposition – there may be more than one opponent. If you can’t find any, identify your team’s challenges.

Clear roles

Sports teams tend to have clear roles: people know what position they’re supposed to play in and what’s required. Different specialisms may even require different physical attributes, such as height. When roles are unclear, there can be anarchy on the pitch. Back at work there tend to be layers in the hierarchy, specialisms and departments. There may even be job descriptions and competency frameworks, but seldom are specific roles worked out for each team member, for each team they’re in. Maybe we think that’s a bit patronizing for professional roles. Maybe it’s just too hard. But when a short-term team is formed for a pitch or a project and clear roles are defined, the performance can really pick up.

Tip: don’t assume the job title means the role is understood on any given team. Clarify what’s expected of each individual.


The actual time sports teams spend competing and playing is small; they spend most of their time practising, both together and individually. Members may work alone on building strength or improving technique. There will be team practice with feedback. By contrast work teams practise on the job, as work is done and tasks are completed. There may be time for a training workshop, or even a 1:1 coaching conversation – but the importance of learning can be underplayed.

Tips: encourage team members to share lessons learned in regular team meetings. Give and get feedback to and from fellow team members. Make time for training.


Miss the final penalty in a shoot-out? Team-mates will all know – and the whole world might be watching. There’s nowhere for sports team members to hide if they drop the ball, catch a crab, or stuff up a shot. This will be discussed, both in the immediate aftermath when emotions run high, and later to learn the lessons and improve. With work teams, wrap-ups (if they happen at all) can focus on task and not pay enough attention to individuals.

Tip: once clear goals are set for the team’s performance and everyone’s clear on their role, check in regularly on how members are collectively and individually performing.

You may also find this blog post useful: 8 signs your team may need a tune-up.


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available now on Amazon and ‘The Feedback Book’, due out in September.

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