We Are the Champions

Corporate America pays star athletes and coaches millions to pump up its workforce. Do these secrets of success reach beyond the locker room?

By Steve Salerno, published September 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A while back I sat in attendance as former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, baseball's ambassador-at-large, delivered an hour-long speech to employees of Staedtler Inc., a manufacturer of precision writing instruments. Before the speech, the firm's marketing vice president, Ted Wheelock, shared his hopes for the evening's festivities. The sales staff was mired in a slump. Wheelock felt Lasorda, motivator extraordinaire, could "help us take things to the next level."

I was spellbound by Lasorda's presentation, but not for the reasons you might think. Lasorda's $500-a-minute spiel touched on nothing specific to Staedtler's business. He could have been talking about pens; he could have been talking about peanut butter. His advice ranged from the merely banal ("There are people who make things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened") to the simpleminded ("You gotta want it"), and even included nonsense of Yogi Berra proportions ("The thing you notice about losers is, they don't win"). For his piece de resistance, Lasorda trotted out the tale of how a hobbled Kirk Gibson, through sheer grit, blasted a pinch-hit game-winning home run for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. "Kirk just wasn't going to be beaten that day!" thundered Lasorda, as if to imply that losing pitcher Dennis Eckersley of the Oakland A's had come to the ballpark not especially caring whether he cost his team the Series.

What, then, was so fascinating? The reaction. At the end of his talk, Lasorda was applauded and backslapped as if he'd just delivered the Sermon on the Mount. A joyous Wheelock opined that he'd gotten his money's worth—and then some. "Already?" I asked. "How do you know?" He answered by way of a broad gesture at the smiling faces and general vigor that still simmered in the room as Lasorda made his exit. "The guys are stoked," he said.

Some months later, I called Wheelock to find out how things were going. The slump continued.

Today there's no sating corporate America's appetite for the lessons and putative logic of sportsthink.

"Nothing can suppress our compulsion for moving the locker room into the meeting room," says corporate communications theorist John K. MacKenzie. Between 1991 and 2002, annual U.S. corporate training budgets grew from $43.2 billion to $66 billion. Though the portion of that total given over to sports-influenced protocols is hard to pin down, the sum clearly runs to 10 figures. The domestic banquet circuit alone is a roughly $500 million annual enterprise, and Lasorda and his ilk pocket fees that range from $5,000 into the high six figures. Companies spend additional billions on "after-action"—the books, videos, CDs, workshop tutorials, and other ancillary materials designed, says MacKenzie, to create "a bright shining world where never is heard a discouraging word and everybody is a winner all the time."

In one sense, sportsthink has come a long way since my evening with Tommy Lasorda. He represented the movement's first wave, which was all about celebrity and charisma—a McLuhanesque affair wherein the man was the message, even when the man had no message. (The biggest draw was once O.J. Simpson, who preached to standing-room-only crowds despite diction so poor that he could barely be understood.) During the 1990s, the sportsthink phenomenon made cottage industries of just about everyone who'd ever achieved anything on a gridiron, court, rink or ball diamond.

But something else has happened during this decade: Today corporate leaders expect employees not merely to applaud the message and take inspiration from it, but to actually live it. Though household names like Lasorda are still the most recognizable part of the business, the juggernaut is piloted by a host of noncelebrity consultants. These variously credentialed business advisers work with corporate HR offices for weeks or months to inculcate a philosophical message that they believe will change the fabric of a company.

Consider the case of Boise Cascade Office Products (BCOP), a significant part of the $7 billion Boise Cascade empire. The company has enthusiastically adopted the metaphors and structures of professional sports. BCOP uses a chart of a football field to depict its progress toward its annual quota (the "goal line") for sales. It teaches new sales recruits to use sports imagery ("Think of yourself on the 20-yard line, about to kick the game-winning field goal!") and draw sales plans from NFL playbooks, sometimes complete with X's and O's. Members of a major-account team might be assigned the respective functions of quarterback, receiver and offensive lineman, each function correlated to a customer service equivalent. Administrative support personnel are urged to view themselves as assistant coaches.

These tactics have transformed sportsthink from a feel-good exercise into a much more aggressive motivational tool—one with potentially serious side effects. Sportsthink demands results it cannot deliver and teaches people to look at their jobs, if not the world itself, through an overly simplistic, ultracompetitive lens. Life becomes an EST-ian morality play in which winners win because of good character and losers lose because of a weakness of spirit. "Most of these regimens are a mile wide and an inch deep," says Jay Kurtz, president of KappaWest, a leading management-consulting firm. Curing an ailing company requires making tough decisions and bringing about tedious changes, like completely revamping the corporate reporting structure or gutting an underperforming unit. "Very few of [these programs] ever get down to the really gutsy things people have to do within a company to bring about meaningful change."

Kurtz also cautions that Lasorda-like fervor, applied in the absence of skill, can be counterproductive. "The most dangerous people in the world are the highly enthusiastic incompetents," he says. "All today's motivational blitzkrieg achieves is getting people to run faster in the wrong direction. If they don't know what they're doing, or have the wrong idea of what they're doing, their 'will to win' could destroy them." He points to Apple Computer, which, twice in its history, came to the verge of extinction by using world-class exuberance to communicate a message that had little or nothing to do with the corporate world's needs.

In every Olympic year, "Go for the Gold!" becomes a dominant theme at conventions, as workers are urged to emulate the qualities of Olympians. Yet these world-class athletic performances seldom result from camaraderie, consensus problem-solving and the other cooperative behaviors that are the backbone of business success. "Olympic medals often go to temperamental loners who shun teamwork and labor for years under conditions of obsessive personal sacrifice that few, if any, mainstream employees would tolerate," says MacKenzie. Tiger Woods is such a perfectionist that he makes his own bed when he stays at a hotel in a golf tournament, Benjamin Dattner, principal in Dattner Consulting and adjunct professor of organizational development at New York University, points out. "But that same focus that makes him a perfectionist might make it difficult for him to be a manager, or even to be very adaptable, in a corporate environment."

"Athlete is a powerful word," says Patrick Cohn of Peak Performance Sports, who has consulted for IBM, among others. "Athletes walk with pride. Athletes persist in the face of doubt and defeat." True enough. But left unsaid is that there's little reason for the nonathlete to look or feel just as confident. Athletes walk with pride because they have specific competencies: the ability to run faster than most other humans, to return a serve that's boring in at 110 mph or to hit a 5-inch sphere over a 30-foot wall that's 400 feet away. "Athletes," says Jim Bouton, baseball iconoclast and author of the tell-all book Ball Four, "don't become confident simply by having some other athlete scream at them, 'Now go out there and be confident!'"

Sportsthink also miscasts the competitive terrain facing most companies. "Sports like baseball and football are one team versus another. In business," Kurtz points out, "you're hardly ever going up against just one team." Adds Dattner: "In sports everybody plays by the same basic rules. In the business world this is not the case."

Sportsthink plays to the Mittyism within us. The appeal of the message is its promise of transcendence, the idea that if Kirk Gibson could do it—gimpy legs, sore back and all—well, so can we. No, we can't all hit that game-winning home run for the Dodgers. But if, as the movement's high priests claim, we all have within us an untapped reserve of mettle, then maybe we can learn to hit the winning home run for our company. Much as we wear Allan Iverson's jersey or swing Mark McGwire's bat, we think we can absorb these athletes' successes by embracing their trappings.

If success happens for magical reasons that have nothing to do with skill or wit or looks—if we can persuade ourselves that Gibson launched that homer because he flat-out willed it—then we too can rise above our limitations. "It brings people back to a simpler time in their life," says Mark Dixon, director of sales and client services for Acosta Sales and Marketing, who for the past six years has booked sports speakers on behalf of the Southern California deli-bakery industry. "It reminds us of when we were younger, and more optimistic about life—a time when everything was still possible, and we were all going to play center field for the New York Yankees."

So what's the harm in believing? Most of the teachings of sportsthink, after all, are generic insights about teamwork, motivation, goal setting and positive thinking. But corporations are spending money on metaphors and feel-good exhortations when they could be using those resources for more substantial and relevant training. Even its advocates allow that many companies see sportsthink as a relatively painless alternative to more intensive consulting. And the truth is that sports-related inspirational talks and business plans have never been empirically shown to improve corporate morale or productivity. Dattner finds this lack of data ironic, given the numbers mania of the sports world itself. "One of the great things about baseball and football is the volume of statistics available for benchmarking performance down to the most infinitesimal level," he says. "So if you want to emulate sports, then emulate sports: Keep score!"

Steve Foucault is a former group sales manager with Bethlehem Steel, which undertook an ambitious sports-oriented training program back in the late 1980s. "The awards ceremonies were the worst for me," says Foucault. "They always gave the stuff to the people who 'went the extra mile,' as if to imply that the rest of us weren't trying hard enough. Well, I went the extra mile. I tried damn hard. I just wasn't as naturally gifted as some of the others. I always ended up feeling like a loser, and I wasn't the only one."

It bears noting that no amount of team spirit was able to help Bethlehem Steel overcome global competition and the other external factors that made the company's prices uncompetitive. The steelmaker filed for bankruptcy in 2001—and faded into history two years later.