The Value of a Coach – Agile Lessons from the World of Sports

I have spent a significant portion of my life devoted to the sport of ice hockey.

I began skating at 2, playing competitively at age 4 and continued through college.   While winding down my playing career, I picked up coaching and have spent more than 20 years teaching the game at all levels.  Prior to joining Cerner, I was also fortunate to work professionally for 3 years running the Ice Hockey tournament for the 2002 Winter Olympics managing the computer and results systems and currently volunteer with the Missouri Mavericks in a related capacity.

While watching the Sochi Olympics, I was reminded again at the similarities in coaching Agile teams and coaching sporting teams.

team canada

As a player and coach, I have been fortunate to regularly be a part of very successful teams.  I learned from my coaches and then again as a coach that winning comes from taking individual talent and putting it within a team structure that amplifies the talent of the entire team.

Each team has a unique set of personalities and skill sets.  A good coach has to know how to assess the team members and then determine how to help them come together to “win the game” on a consistent basis. Sometimes this requires teaching new skills, breaking bad habits or even deemphasizing star players to make the team better.

Teaching a new skill

At every level in sports, coaches need to teach players new skills in order for the individual and the team to be successful.  When teaching a new skill, you cannot expect that the players will be able to do it right the first time.  In order to ensure success, a coach must incrementally increase the complexity of the task until mastery is attained.

A progression that is typically used by trained coaches is to practice a new skill at 50% speed until the skill is understood, increase to 75% speed and then progress to 100% speed. Once an athlete can perform the task at 100% speed, the complexity of the task is increased with various level of defensive pressure from low to high.  I refer to this as the “No, Low, Moderate, High Pressure” training model.

defensive pressure

The athlete must go through all levels of progression to adequately learn the skill.  It isn’t mastered until it is repeated at top speed, under high defensive pressure and becomes a natural part of the athlete’s repertoire.

Using American Football as an example, a wide receiver and quarterback will run pass routes at the 50/75/100% speed in practice and then the coaches will start introducing defensive pressure in varying degrees to both the quarterback and the wide receiver. They will then place the route into a series of plays that could be used in a game situation and practice those plays in the no/low/moderate/high pressure model until it is ready to be used in a game.

Breaking Bad Habits

Most athletes have various natural abilities and learn to be successful developing and leveraging their talents.  Great athletes spend time focusing not on their strengths, but on their most glaring weaknesses to avoid developing bad habits or creating tendencies.  In most cases, they have to unlearn bad habits to move effectively to the next level of competition.

As a 2-year old, my mother taught me to skate by holding M&Ms in her hand and having me skate to her.  I found out that I could just put my left foot forward and propel myself with my right leg and get to the M&Ms quickly.  While that achieved the goal of getting to the M&Ms, it caused some problems when I started playing competitive hockey.  I could perform well as long as I primarily used my right foot, but struggled with my left.  It wasn’t until I was 13 that I had a coach that taught me to do everything equally well with either foot.  It opened up a whole new realm of skills and opportunities.  I would never have played in college if that coach hadn’t forced me to work on breaking my bad habits.

Michael Jordan would practice being able to be able to do everything equally well moving to his left or his right.  As he improved, he elevated his game to make sure that he would go to either side 50% of the time.  He would also strive to make sure that he varied his shot selection type (fade away, pull up jumper or drive to the basket) so that the players guarding him wouldn’t have a tendency to use against him.  As a defender, he would study the tendencies in his opponent and force them into situations where they had to rely on their weakest skill percentage wise to beat him.


Tim Tebow is a classic example of a player who had the skills as a quarterback to win in a certain system and be very successful at the college level.  He won the Heisman trophy in 2007 as the top player in college football and led his team to an NCAA National Championship in 2008.  Because of his larger than average size for a quarterback, his style was to run and mix in a pass as needed.  He was so successful as a runner that he never learned to be an elite passer.  Despite his talent, he has been unable to break his bad habits in order to be successful in the NFL.  For all the Florida and Tebow fans out there before I get a flurry of hate mail, he is still a great human being and a legend at Florida, just not an NFL quarterback.


Deemphasizing the Individual

As a coach, the least successful team that I ever had record-wise ironically had one of the most talented individual players.  The player however refused to put their personal style aside to make the team better. This often resulted in the star trying to skate through the entire other team with the puck to score a goal.  The other players would often stop skating and watch to see the result.  They might as well have been on the bench with me.

At the beginning of the season, we won our first several games as most teams were still playing as individuals and our star was better than any of their individuals.  As the season progressed, opposing teams learned to just focus on the one player and we became very easy to defend and went on a month long losing streak.  I knew the problem, but the team was slow to change as they had early success and thought that was the only way to win.  They didn’t realize that the problem had changed.

The breakthrough moment came when the star player missed a game due to illness. The team had to come together and played significantly better, upsetting the top team in the league.

Once the star realized that the team could succeed without them and the team realized they could win without the star, the attitude on the team changed.  They started playing together and trusting that that the other players would do their job to help the team win.

I have always found that the more complex and challenging the competition, the more important team behavior becomes.  For many professional athletes, they dominate their youth leagues and put up significant individual statistics.  When they hit college, they still periodically dominate, but learn that they have to do it within a team system and the individual statistics are no longer as gaudy. By the time they hit the pros, all the other players are as talented as they are and the only way victories come is by playing as a team.  They can still make great plays as an individual, but the team system is what enables their ability to shine.

Coach John Wooden and his dominant UCLA basketball teams are a terrific case study of how to get the best out of talented individuals within a team system.  His teams won 10 NCAA National Championships in a 12 year period, including 7 in a row.  They went a record 88 games at one point without a loss.

wooden quote

Interestingly, people tend to revert to individual behaviors when under high pressure/stress which is why some teams seem to fold under pressure in the sporting world.  They stop working within the system that brought them success.

Many wonder what happened to the Men’s’ Ice Hockey Team USA in the Sochi Olympics and why they didn’t win a medal.  In breaking down both of their losses, the answer is relatively simple, when they played the better opponents (Canada and Finland) who had their same skill level, they stopped playing within their system and lost to the teams that used their skill within their system.  Read Patrick Kane’s comments here and notice how many times he uses “I”.  I have watched him quite a bit and his play in the last two games of the Olympics was very much as an individual and not at all how he normally plays with the Chicago Blackhawks.  His Chicago Blackhawks linemate (Jonathan Toews) was on Team Canada and scored the game winning goal in the Gold Medal game as a result of playing within the system.

friendly hockey players

Agile Application

When using metaphors, I tend to not directly call out the correlations as each individual finds things that apply to them at different moments.  I do want to make sure however that a few key points are recognized.

As I have observed hundreds of Agile teams and their results, I frequently see one of these three behaviors that is impeding the team from achieving their potential.

Often a change is introduced and because of the change J-curve, it is rejected before it can produce the desired results.  Many teams adapt before they adopt and as a result, they end up getting cargo cult results or end up doing a bunch of mini-waterfalls.  They have to slow things down to understand how to do it before they can do it under full pressure at full speed.

Other times, assignments are taken by unskilled workers but the timelines to go through the learning curve are not incorporated which invariably leads to defect-riddled code and late delivery.

I have observed teams and individuals reverting to behaviors that they learned in an individual coding model like most college projects and try and apply it in complex, enterprise models. It is a little like thinking that your backyard soccer/football prowess will translate to success in the English Premier League.  As the complexity increases, the skills and methods have to change.  Global variables work really well in a hack prototype, but are not a real good idea in an enterprise setting.

Agile teams work.  A team of individuals trying to work as an Agile team does not.  Each member needs to have an attitude of it being ”more about we than me.”  When teams have individually assigned user stories, it is usually a strong indicator that they are a team in name only.  When an architect is the one who assigns the work or continually directs the other developers what to do, an individual may be overemphasized at the expense of the team.

In your next retrospective, I challenge each team to evaluate if they have some of these challenges and then make a plan to do something about it.   Reach out to an internal or external coach and see how they can help your team overcome these obstacles and perform at the next level.

Author: Matt Anderson

Matt Anderson is a Director at Cerner Corporation. A 20+ year IT veteran with a background in development, architecture and project management, Matt has led Cerner’s Enterprise Agile Transformation since its beginnings in late 2008.

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