What corporate training can learn from football

There’s a lot that learning and development practitioners can take from the world of professional sport, argues Lisa Barrett

Learning from great sports leaders isn’t new for the business world. After all, sport, like business, is a combination of science and art. You apply a set of principles based on what works (call it strategy), but you never forget that you’re dealing with people – and getting individuals to express themselves through performance is critical.

In his book Wenger: My Life in Red and White, Arsene Wenger articulates a set of learnings from his career as one of the best football managers in history. Many of his key points are directly relevant to corporate training, job performance, and why a professional apprentice model is now emerging. For too long, we’ve had a significant gap between the way people are trained for jobs, and the work they’re then expected to do. Looking through the lens of football, this feels quite obvious.

You don’t know if you’ve got it until you play

It would be ridiculous to judge a footballer based on their ability to write about football. Imagine the absurdity of sending them to a classroom to learn about the game, assigning their playing time based on their essay scores, and then only seeing them on the pitch once they’ve finished studying. So why does corporate training do that?  

Corporate training tends to pull people away from their jobs, give them a bunch of content, and judge them based on their performance in an artificial setting. What happens when the opposing team changes their offensive strategy? Or when the CEO needs a recommendation in a week, not six months?

The professional apprentice model is a lot like football. It means training happens in real time. Professional apprentices are full-time employees expected to deliver and perform. They’re doing a job, while getting ongoing training and coaching to inform it. How does the coach know if the person can perform in the real world? Well, because they’re performing in the real world – and the coach is directly responsible for making that happen.

On the pitch, not in a book, is where to look for performance

Wenger writes extensively about the nutrition innovations he brought to his players. The idea of getting players to eat healthily was so novel in his early days at Arsenal, players would head into matches chanting “we want our Mars bars!”. Of course, they eventually came around.

The point here is to separate learning content from learning application. Learning content has been conflated with education itself. But content is just content. It’s something you can read in a book or watch online. What matters in education is what actually happens in application. That’s why good instruction matters. We all know what it feels like to struggle through a science book, then have a brilliant instructor break it down for us in the lab. Imagine if we’d never had that lab. Imagine if footballers were told about healthy eating, but never went through the pain of switching from Mars bars to kale.  

So how does this work in professional apprenticeships? Well, concepts are applied and revisited, applied and revisited, and judgement and nuance developed. Just as a great midfielder will learn to operate differently in every single set of circumstances, a professional apprentice learns to apply their skills in different situations as they master their own field.

You don’t need a classroom instructor – you need a coach

Imagine you’re suddenly asked to acquire new skills to help your company succeed under pressures from competitors. Would you want to learn from an instructor focused on giving you knowledge? Or would you want a coach: someone who’s done the job, is obsessed with the difference between good and great, and can offer real-time correction?

That’s how football works. Your coach is in the details. They watch videos and analyse your work. They’re not obsessed with knowledge, but performance. This isn’t the case for most business training.

Post-match report

Of course, good education and training must include instruction and analysis outside the day-to-day job. Effective learning requires us to practise some things before we jump in fully. But I don’t think it’s controversial to say our current system is pretty off balance. Instead, imagine a world where preparation and training for professional careers:

  • Happens in the context of your job
  • Focuses on performance as what matters and indicates success
  • Is delivered through coaching, personalised to you
It makes a lot of sense, and this world is coming sooner than you think.

Lisa Barrett is vice president of learning, innovation and operations at Multiverse