A Whole ’Nother Ballgame? Talent Development and Sports

By: Nathan Wiita

Sports is human life in microcosm. – Howard Cosell

Some will say it all started with Billy Beane’s sabermetrics and Moneyball. Others will trace it back to the sports statistics nerds aficionados who gave rise to the present-day multibillion-dollar fantasy sports industry. Either way, it is about numbers. Numbers, more specifically, that objectively define and measure performance in sports (e.g., free-throw percentage, batting average). And once you can define and measure performance, it isn’t such a big leap to better predict, manage, and accelerate performance. Perhaps this high-level approach sounds familiar to the leadership-and talent development-inclined reader…

Given the focus on measuring, predicting, and accelerating performance, it is no real surprise that the fields of sports and human resources—particularly talent assessment and development—are increasingly overlapping domains. The most successful sports organizations focus heavily on the human experience of their franchise, both for their employees and their fans. And it is businesses that are taking a page out of sports organizations’ playbook and getting serious about accelerating performance through better engagement and recovery. Workplace researchers are also hopping aboard the bandwagon, increasingly applying sports-based data and insights to shed light on business-focused questions.

What has been given less attention, however, is—what can we, as talent and leadership development professionals, learn from those doing this work in sports organizations? In other words, there’s no shortage of research on sports informing organizational practices and vice versa, but there’s a relative lack of knowledge about how talent and leadership development work happens in sports organizations, and what insights can be gleaned for outsiders.

It is for these reasons that we’ve brought together a panel discussion at the 32nd Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. We want to address how this work differs in sports organizations, including the unique challenges and opportunities. We’ll cover how they think about leadership development, as well as meta-trends in the HR/leadership development space—including the use of “big data,” diversity and inclusion, and engaging and developing the millennial generation at work. We’re excited to have representatives from the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and Major League Soccer (MLS) here, as well as the sports apparel and sports media spaces.

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