Coaching Through Setbacks: What Sports Can Teach Us About Leading Through Struggle

Coaching through setbacks

This article was originally published by Fast Company here

Momentum in sports is real. When a player is in the zone, it seems that everything happens in slow motion. They see where the ball is coming and where the competition is going. They feel every swing, every stroke, and every pass perfectly.

But momentum can swing the other way, too. When a player is off, even just a little, the game speeds up. They miss the goal slightly and start to press. They start playing tighter, which makes things worse. They over-analyze and are so caught up in trying to figure out what is wrong that they stray from the fundamentals. It can quickly become a downward spiral.

Coaching a player going through a slump like that is challenging. But an even more difficult situation for a coach is trying to reintegrate a player who has been injured. If they have been out for a while, even if they are fully recovered physically, they aren’t as sharp as their teammates who have continued to play. They aren’t in quite as good of condition, and they are out of practice. To get back to peak performance, what they need is playing time and lots of repetition. The challenge is that if they aren’t playing at their best; it can become a drag on the team’s performance to have them in the game.

The response for many coaches is to “ease them in.” Play them sparingly. Put them at the bottom of the lineup. Let them practice with the backups.

The problem for the athlete is that this means they are getting less opportunity to catch up when what they need is more opportunity. As a result, they fall further behind. And when they do get a chance to play, their performance isn’t as good as they want it to be. Their frustration can lead to anxiety, which restarts the spiral. They are failing and they (and their teammates) know it.

Many athletes leave a sport following just this kind of scenario. Good players who lose their confidence can then lose their joy in the sport—not because they can’t play well, but because their coach didn’t know how to bring them back from something difficult.

Several years ago, I sat with a business leader who was discussing someone on his team who was struggling with some personal tragedies. He felt great compassion for this individual who was enduring hardship. He had been a top performer for many years, and the leader cared about him personally. But the discussion inevitably shifted to his job performance.

“The challenge is that he is so distracted that he really isn’t getting his job done,” he said. “I understand it’s because of what he is going through, but it is hard on the rest of the team because they are having to pick up the slack. And this individual knows it and feels terrible, which is only making his personal situation worse. I’m not sure what to do.”

If you have worked and led a team for an extended period, you have likely experienced this. Someone who used to be a top performer starts struggling, and you are faced with the question of what to do. How long do you stick with them? Do you demote them or take other action?

Leaders must remember that the people we lead don’t live in a vacuum. Life continues to happen to them inside and outside of the office. Everyone experiences great personal difficulties at some point, and if you work with someone long enough, you are certain to see them encounter struggles.

From years of coaching, I have learned much about how to help young athletes come back from a slump or injury and rebuild the confidence that breeds success. Those lessons are also helpful when leading a former high performer who is struggling in his or her job.


In the sports world, this means you look for matchups and situations that are favorable to the athlete. They need to win. In business, this may mean assigning a smaller or simpler project. Look for things that are doable given their current limitations. Let them do something they excel at, so they feel they’re contributing, and their team sees them doing well.


This seems completely counter to the first point, but the reality is that they are going to strike out and miss some shots as they recover, and you have to give them the space to do so. Just like when you are first learning to do something, failure is inevitable, and no one can skip that part of the recovery process. Let them know that you understand there will be bumps along the way, but that you believe in them enough to stick with them through the hard times because you have such confidence that they will come out stronger on the other end.


There is a big difference between coaching and instructing. I have seen many people who are incredible at teaching an athlete the skills of a sport but are terrible at coaching those same athletes. An instructor’s job is to help build an athlete’s skill set, but it’s the coach’s job to help skilled athletes be successful. High performers who are struggling most likely aren’t doing so because they forgot how to play the game. What people need in these situations is not someone jumping in and telling them how to do their job, but someone who can guide them through the journey of recovery.

Leaders must recognize that it is inevitable that everyone we work with is going to go through times of struggle. While many of the causes will be things we can’t control, we can do our part to help them through and return to peak performance.

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