Effective Coaching in the Workplace: 5 Lessons from NBA Greats

Coaching presents a difficult task to many business leaders, even successful ones. Most managers and executives, after all, gained their

4 min. read

Coaching presents a difficult task to many business leaders, even successful ones. Most managers and executives, after all, gained their current positions due to achievement in areas other than coaching: Top salespeople typically become sales managers, high-performing consultants are asked to lead projects, etc. So not all managers have prior experience with coaching. While this skill comes easily to some, others among us struggle to coach effectively while balancing a myriad of other responsibilities.

So it helps to take a page from the playbooks (almost literally) of those who do this professionally: NBA coaches. Professional basketball coaches spend the majority of their work balancing the X’s and O’s of the game with the broader mission of creating a cohesive culture of achievement among 13-14 players. The lessons they offer on effective coaching can have a significant impact on your teams, no matter your business.

5 NBA-inspired Lessons for Effective Coaching in the Workplace

1. Coaching should occur consistently, not quarterly or (gulp) bi-annually.

We’ve accepted this idea as fact in the sports world — if an NBA coach waited for a quarter of the season before providing feedback to his team, fans would call for his head. Coaching, training and development are all-encompassing aspects of the sporting world. Take the latest NBA sensation, Donovan Mitchell. He didn’t transform into a historic rookie by chance. Instead, one ESPN article ties his success to the daily coaching he receives, which allows him to evaluate his recent performances and build on consistent developmental themes.

In this light, it seems odd that much of the business world sticks to quarterly or bi-annual coaching rhythms. Daily coaching is challenging to fit into the workday, sure, but feedback should be a consistent part of your team’s culture. At Torrent, we set weekly coaching as our minimum standard. Check out our coaching form if you’re wondering how to structure these quick check-ins.

2. Your team consists of people first and employees second.

Gregg Popovich, one of the winningest NBA coaches of all time, defied previous orthodoxy — that basketball players are basketball players, and that’s it — by engaging with his team more personally than his contemporaries did. One of his proteges, longtime Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, took this approach to another level, seeking to merge the tactical aspects of coaching with the personal ones. In Budenholzer’s mind, these factors were inextricably linked. His goal? To “create a workplace where the product on the floor is an actual expression of a belief that everyone matters.”


In short, he built his business around personal relationships because he understood that his employees performed better when they were treated as humans, not as drones.

3. Focus on conditions that drive success, not winning itself.

In his book “11 Rings: The Soul of Success,” NBA great Phil Jackson saysthe most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”

Though chance may affect basketball more than the business world, his point still stands. In any industry, some factors are beyond our control. So a pure fixation on winning and losing can lead to low morale and unproductive emotionality during hard times. Effective coaching in the workplace instead relies on building a foundation for success and letting the results take care of themselves.

4. Teach your team to thrive without you.

Former Orlando Magic coach Scott Skiles once said, “As a coach, you don’t want to have the answer every time, or you’ll have a team that can’t think for itself.”

Any business leader wants to feel irreplaceable. But employee empowerment is linked to far more organizational benefits than dependence and rigid hierarchy are.

Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors has taken this principle to the extreme, occasionally letting his players assume coaching responsibilities to keep them motivated. Not just in practices, either. In one game against the Phoenix Suns, he delegated most of his job to his players. His team responded with a 40+ point margin of victory.

5. If you need to critique behavior, never make it personal.

Effective coaching occasionally requires honest feedback that can be uncomfortable to give and receive. Brad Stevens, head coach of the Boston Celtics, offers a valuable way of presenting it without straining relationships or damaging morale. He’s known for being careful with his language in these situations. His critiques are all action-focused, about the specific play and what the player should have done. He doesn’t imply anything about his players’ personalities, avoiding terms like “lazy” and “selfish.”

Actionable insights give your team concrete examples of what they can improve on, while character-based generalizations can lower morale and motivation. Follow Stevens’ example and frame the problem as a solvable one, not a permanent one.

While the tactical parts of coaching vary widely between industries, its personal aspects are mostly consistent from the NBA to the business world. It’s about building a culture that motivates your people. And as Doc Rivers, longtime coach of the Celtics and LA Clippers, once said, culture “has to start with a coach and it has to start with a vision.” What kind of culture and vision are you building?