Agile Coaching and Sports

Question: why do sport teams employ coaches past training camp? Aren’t the athletes professionals capable of their own learning?

This is a question I received recently when I explained that ’embedded” or “integrated” coaching (where a Agile coach is present 5 days a week for 3 months or more) is probably a very bad idea. For those of you new to the idea that embedded or “integrated” coaching might not exactly be good for team-learning, take a look at these links:

Embedded Agile Coaching Defined

Agile Coaching Values

So, why do sport teams employ coaches past training camp?

Aren’t the athletes professionals capable of their own learning?

In my view it is absurd to compare the role of say, a Division1 basketball coach, to an Agile coach. The roles have little if any overlap. For example, is an Agile coach duly authorized to define various team rules, like a pro sports coach is? Is it ever OK for an Agile coach to yell at a team member like a college basketball coach might yell?

It is hard to imagine a scenario where that would be healthy in any Agile coaching context. The role of Agile coach has far less authority than a sports coach. This is self-evident.

Or is it? “Embedded” or “integrated” coaching, where the Agile coach is present every single day, positions the coach as “the authority”.

Is this healthy or even useful?

Is embedding a Agile coach full-time …in an organization ….simply trading one kind of authority-related dysfunction for another?


Agile Coaching Five Days a Week, FULLTIME for Three months or More: In Service to What?

Agile Coaches are familiar with the patterns of naive and vulnerable client organizations that are new to Agile. In my view, Agile Coaching pros have an obligation to help clients understand what is best for them. This always includes helping the client take 100% responsibility for their own learning. This usually means the coach must refuse opportunities to play a larger role.

Being there, 5 days a week, full time, for 3 months or more can be lucrative and hard to resist. As coaching professionals, we do our best (and live up to our potential) by serving the learning of the client organization. This includes challenging the client org to take 100% responsibility to reach a self-sustaining state of Agility, without the need for an external coach.

Stating that pro and college coaches play a big role after training camp and that therefore, Agile coaches can do the same is at best misguided. At issue is authority. In sports, the coach is authorized to substantially define the team by defining and enforcing rules. (Example: Examine the book Wooden On Leadership .)

After some basic training, is it EVER right for an Agile coach to define team rules? No. Teams must define their own rules– and culture. Agile coaches have far less authority than pro or D1 sports coaches, many of whom can choose to rule autocratically. Would you want your Agile coach acting that way? I hope not!

Coaches that overstay and “embed” or “integrate” into team life (usually as the ongoing Scrum Master)  are in a position to reduce team learning. This happens when the team does not learn to answer it’s own questions, does not try enough experiments,  and does not engage in enough risky learning.

The following table enumerates some key differences between two roles: pro sports coach, and Agile coach. As you can see, it is an apples-to-oranges compare:

Coach & Team Characteristic: Sports Teams IT Teams Notes
Coach has authority to define rules and therefore define the culture X The best sports team coaches DEFINE the culture of the team. See Wooden On Leadership for details
Coach has total authority to reward and sanction behavior X
Coach has broad influence over who has membership on the team, and who plays X
Coach typically defines basic team rules and enforces them X
Coach specifies the practices and has ultimate authority on how practice and practices are selected and executed X
Coach is typically compensated in part based on team performance X Agile coaches get paid not matter what. IN sports, if your team underperforms,  you are GONE
As a norm, Team defines their own intentional culture based on shared values which may be explained and suggested by coach X It’s absurd to imagine any Agile coach defining and then enforcing a team’s cultural norms
As a norm, Team works from principles typically suggested by coach, that support & express underlying values X
As a norm, Team has opportunity to change practices periodically based on retrospection X Self-governing teams define who they practice and how they execute. This is at best extremely rare in pro & college sports.
Team can mature to the point of no longer needing a coach; a “watcher” or Facilitator or Scrum Master can announce what is happening and stop short of issuing guidance like a coach X
Team’s goal is results as measured by specific progress (wins, frequent delivery etc X X


As we can see, in terms of authority, the pro sports coach has near-absolute authority to do the work of defining the rules and influence overall team culture.

In authority terms, these two jobs are not comparable, even though they both use the term ‘coach’ in the job description.

Who Is Ultimately Responsible for the Team’s Learning ?

Teams are. Teams are responsible for learning continuously. No one can do it for them.

Software teams must  take 100% responsibility for the culture design of their own team, and for their own team learning. That’s hard to do when an Agile-authority figure, installed by management, is present 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, functioning as an authority figure, telling the team at every turn what it “should” do. Particularly when the ‘coach’ takes up the Scrum Master role for more than a few weeks, the presence of a fulltime coach crowds the team and discourages team initiative and engagement.

Sports coaches and Agile coaches similar? Yes. But- when an Agile coaches take up too much authority, the results are predictable: reduced team learning, reduced engagement, greatly reduced self-organization,  and suboptimal productivity. For this reason, Agile coaches must look for every opportunity to increase the learning of the organization as a whole, with strong intent to vacate or otherwise evolve the current coaching role as soon as possible. It’s hard to do that when present 5 days a week, for 12 or more weeks while also often occupying the pivotal Scrum Master role.

A far better pattern is to teach a new Scrum Master, one who is internal to the coached organization, and for the external Agile coach to be present on a part-time basis. This places responsibility for learning and improvement on the coached organization itself, which is where it belongs. This is a healthy pattern that encourages healthy and authentic Agile adoptions.