How to Watch the Super Bowl -- and Your Business -- Like a Coach

Now, some people say you can't learn anything about business from football. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Do you watch a football game like a fan or a coach? More importantly, do you watch your business like a fan or a coach? Stay with me.

Think about it: In football there are 22 players on the field but only one ball. A football coach watching a game focuses on formations, blocking schemes, secondary coverage, blitz packages, etc., because a touchdown is the result of countless split-second decisions and actions.

The same is true in business. Closing -- or losing -- a deal is the product of a range of sales, marketing, service, and support efforts. Focusing solely on "the close" can cause you to miss other opportunities to improve your business.

So what does a football coach focus on when he watches a game? I asked Mickey Matthews, the head football coach at James Madison University. (Mickey led the Dukes to the Division 1-AA national championship in 2004 and has been voted national coach of the year three times.) Here are his five tips:

  • See the whole picture."Football coaches look for specific offensive and defensive alignments. I don't know any coach who enjoys watching a game on TV because the shot is too tight for us to see the defensive backs." Do your metrics let you see the whole field? For example, conversion rate is a popular metric, but focusing solely on an aggregate conversion rate can be misleading. Say you make a change to your website and over the short term your conversion rate decreases. Did you make a wrong move? Maybe... but maybe not: What was the intent of the change you made? What was the intent of new visitors who came to your site? Did they come to browse or to buy? Without understanding why visitors came to your website, conversion rate doesn't let you see the whole picture.
  • Replay constantly. "TiVo changed the way I watch games at home. I stop, rewind, check blocking schemes, analyze a blitz... I run a play back 5 or 6 times. My wife doesn't enjoy watching games with me because I'm constantly rewinding." Do you constantly review operations? Debrief after every sales call. Review customer feedback regularly. Analyze and re-analyze processes. Sometimes you won't find an opportunity to improve until you've scrutinized an issue multiple times.
  • Look for upside, not finished product."Every coach evaluating a player tries to determine how good that player can be three years from now. I don't know of any college coaches who look for finished products. A 'Mr. Football' in a particular state may be a great high school player, but if he was well coached at a great program he might also be maxed out. We look for potential." Do you look beyond skills and background when making hiring decisions? Experience can be a double-edged sword: While a new employee could bring a necessary skill set, he or she also may not be able to adapt to your company's processes or culture. What candidates offer today is important, but just as important is what they will be capable of three years from now.
  • Look for new ideas. "During the season I don't have time to watch a lot of games, so during the bowl season I watch games in 'consultant' mode so I can see what other successful programs are doing." Do you periodically check out your competition? Do you learn from businesses in other industries? Re-inventing a wheel is incredibly difficult -- and there is no need. Great ideas are all around you. All you have to do is look.
  • Realize forecasting is an inexact science. "Recruiting will always be a matter of beauty in the eye of the beholder. It's not unusual for Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia to be fighting over a player we have no interest in, and it's not unusual for us to love a player no other school is interested in." Do you focus on making decisions that are right for your business, or do you follow "hot" trends? For example, social media marketing is hot -- but it may not be right for your business. You may not see a sufficient return on investment. Determine what your business needs to be successful, stick to your plan, and let data tell you when to change your plan.
Photo courtesy Cathy Kushner, JMU Athletics Communications