HomeBlog Game, Set and Match: What Tennis Can Teach Us About Sales Coaching

Game, Set and Match: What Tennis Can Teach Us About Sales Coaching

February 25, 2013 | By Jim Ninivaggi

There is a great lesson here for first-line sales managers. Too often, when managers join their reps for coached calls, they take a more active role than they should. Sensing the rep may botch the call, they jump in to save the day, closing the deal.

By reaching the finals at the Qatar Open, tennis legend Serena Williams has become the oldest woman to be ranked number one in the world at the ripe old age of 31. Having personally celebrated many birthdays beyond that, finding out that 31 is considered old in professional tennis was a bit depressing. But once I got over that, I began thinking about the difference between coaching tennis vs. other sports, which led me to the coaching role of the first-line sales manager.

When we think of great coaches (e.g. legendary football coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, women’s basketball coach Pat Summit of Tennessee), we typically imagine them pacing up and down the sidelines or court, yelling instructions to their players. During timeouts, they gather their players to discuss strategy and plays. They are active participants in the game, getting almost as much television coverage as their players!

This is not the case, however, in tennis. It is illegal to coach a tennis player during a match (though some coaches try to skirt this rule by using hand signals). You don't see a tennis coach pacing the sidelines, calling the shots or huddling with their player to discuss strategy during a break.

The tennis coach must focus on getting the player ready for the match. For all intents and purposes, his or her job is done when the player steps onto the court to play. Once the match starts, the coach can only hope he or she has instilled in the player the skills, stamina, strategy and mindset to win.

There is a great lesson here for first-line sales managers. Too often, when managers join their reps for coached calls, they take a more active role than they should. Sensing the rep may botch the call, they jump in to save the day, closing the deal. Every time a manager “rescues” a call, he or she has failed as a coach, neglecting to make the rep “match-ready.” Some calls require the first-line manager not to actively coach, but rather to observe the rep’s strengths and weaknesses. The manager must use these observations to provide feedback, guide the rep through a self-discovery process and establish an improvement plan. First-line managers should ask themselves whether they’ve done their job to ensure that reps have the knowledge, skills, aptitude and ability to make the most of every sales interaction.

A manager’s job is done when the rep sits down with a buyer and begins the call, like a player walking onto center court for the big match. And, fortunately for many of us, sales and marketing leaders are far from being considered “over the hill” at 31!

Jim Ninivaggi

Jim Ninivaggi is Service Director, Sales Enablement Strategies, at SiriusDecisions. Jim’s focus is on helping to deliver data, knowledge and insight that our clients need to improve sales performance and drive ROI. Follow Jim on Twitter @jninivaggi.
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