The recently concluded Asian Games in Jakarta threw up many stories of individuals triumphing against all odds. India may have finished eighth in the medals tally, but audiences at home were riveted by these stories. When Manjit Singh came from behind, like the proverbial dark horse, to win gold in the 800 meters event, we marvelled how he could focus on his running when he essentially was jobless. Pincki Balhara picked up a silver in Kurash, a martial art hitherto unheard of by many, and, we wondered how this young person could perform at all after losing three close family members in three months, including her father and grandfather. Only a true all-rounder can perform at the heptathlon, a combination of seven individual events, so a gold there made the country very proud. For many, it was hard to imagine how Swapna Barman achieved this with a searing toothache, and, with six-toed feet squeezed in shoes made for normal five-toed people. Most of all, we wondered at her journey from deprivation, as the daughter of a rickshaw-puller and a housemaid, to achieve excellence in international sports in a foreign land.
There may have been other individual stories that did not make it to mainstream media and each deserves to be chronicled. There is a lot that we can learn from these performers while doing relatively humdrum tasks. After all, discipline, preparation, persistence, patience, continuous learning & improvement, teamwork, and, an ability to handle failure are assets in every walk of life. There is no dearth of inspirational biographies of sportspeople. More are welcome, so that more people get to read the story of someone ordinary, or worse off, who transformed into a winner. The people who record these stories also need mention and encouragement, as many of these sports stars are not always good at talking about themselves.
However, there is another set of stories that need to be heard. And, those are of the coaches who helped these sports people make their journey. There are many fine biographies of great coaches in the US and Europe, especially in popular team sports like American football, baseball, basketball and soccer. Some truly great films have been made on the contributions of star coaches. “Moneyball” is a good example which describes the innovative practices followed by Billy Beane, using hard data and sabermetrics* to manage the Oakland Athletics team’s consistent superlative performance for four years. These are sadly absent in India. The government does have schemes for recognition for these silent heroes, but not everyone can be given a Dronacharya Award, and thus, make it to headlines under sports news. Even those that do get public recognition do not have a platform for sharing their own struggle, and learning, with others. When an occasional biopic, like the ones on M.S. Dhoni and Mary Kom, gets made, the coach makes it to the public eye, but only in the shadow of the sports person. ‘Dangal’, the biopic on the Phogat sisters, and ‘Chak De India’, on the women’s hockey team, are rare exceptions, where the coach takes the centre stage. Even as Indians took pride in the achievements of Manjit, Pincki, and Swapna, they would have been hard pressed to recall the names of the coaches - Amrish Kumar, Sombir Pavariya, and Subhash Sarkar, respectively.
While athletes provide inspiration for individual performance, coaches have lessons for managers who are responsible for the performance of others. This has received a lot of attention overseas in both the business press and in academia as researchers try to extract generic lessons for managers. For instance, Sarah Carmichael conducted in‑depth interviews with five great coaches for her piece in HBR to distil these learnings for managers:
1. Set high long-term expectations. An Olympic Gold tops a neighbourhood win.
2.Set small individual and team goals regularly and celebrate when they are met.
3.Choose encouragement over criticism at all times. The potential star is anyway harsh on herself.
4.Give honest feedback briefly and immediately, and move on at once to the next step.
5.Prepare hard yourself and expect the same effort at preparation from your team
6.Observe your team members carefully as they perform, and, tailor your manner of dealing with them to suit their individual style. Each individual is unique.
There is one important aspect in the role of a successful sports coach which, though often researched, is not fully understood. This is to do with spotting talent. Most of the published literature deals with good practices followed after that stage. Many researchers, like Nazari, have focussed narrowly on the physical characteristics of potential performers in individual events like, say, the triathlon for screening on age, weight, height, BMI, resting heart rate, pulse rate, fatigue index etc. There have also been efforts, like the one from Vaeyens, to create a conceptual model that would help screen adolescents and pick potential high performers, for all sports, after factoring in numerous predictors including genetic and environmental ones. However, earlier this year itself, a research survey in this area by Kathryn Johnston and others, concludes on a pessimistic note that none of the proposed models for sporting talent identification have reasonable predictive power. The researchers examined all work on this subject published in academic journals over the period 2010-2015, and found that none of the variables proposed for screening and selecting high performers actually did so.
This is an area where business managers may be better off. Large progressive companies have made sufficient investment in analytics to not only develop detailed profiles for good hires, they have also developed methods of increasing the pool of potential hires. Business enterprises have also developed tools, including ones that are AI-based, to carry out screening and selection in a scalable manner. Maybe sports talent spotters can collaborate with HR managers to become better at finding future champions, even as other enterprise managers learn from sports coaches how teams and individuals can be groomed to deliver high performance.
Meanwhile, sport coaches will have to live on instinct and good luck when it comes to finding stars. Much like Subhash Sarkar. On a visit home he heard of an unusual girl from the neighbouring village and made the effort to go across. He found Swapna Barman practicing high jumps all by herself using a wooden frame put up by her father in their backyard. The rest of course is history.
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