Sports Metaphors for the Non-Sports Leader

I have never been a sports guy. During first grade, my parents signed me up for kids soccer. I’m pretty sure this was at the recommendation of our family pediatrician. He probably thought I would benefit from the physical activity. We honestly lost EVERY single game we played. I may even have been one of those kids you hear about who kicked the ball into the other team’s goal. I’m not proud of that season of play and my parents didn’t make me do it again. I also knew, even at 6, that it didn’t mean much when we got a trophy anyway at the end of the season. I think my mom might still have it 30+ years later though.

sports metaphors for leadership

My sports prowess didn’t improve later in life. I took Band to keep from having to take PE in middle school. I was the last kid chosen for teams in PE when forced to take it in high school. This translates into my watching habits also. Unless it’s Carolina Basketball, the Super Bowl or the Olympics, there are a lot of things more likely to be on my TV then an athletic event.

But regardless of how much of a sports person I am, sports metaphors are EVERYWHERE around me. In life, in work, in ministry. Sometimes a good sports metaphor is the simplest way to achieve shared understanding. So whether you’re into sports or not, you should have a working knowledge of these. If you can use them, it will help you when you speak to an audience that does have sports awareness.

measuring progress toward a goal“move the ball down the field”

In football, the goal is to gain yards every play with the eventual objective being a touchdown by getting to the end zone. As such, moving the ball down the field is making measured progress toward your goal.

To use this metaphor well, though, you need to clearly identify two things:

  • What’s your goal? Is it clearly defined? When I was kicking the ball the wrong direction as a 6 year old clueless soccer player, I wasn’t moving toward the goal. In the same way, many teams spend lots of time and energy moving things around without a clearly defined goal. You can’t claim to be moving DOWN the field, if you don’t know which direction the end zone is!
  • What counts as progress? If you identify your goal but it is not easy to measure whether or not you’re getting closer, anyone on the team might regard any activity as progress. It’s important for us as leaders to spell out our goals and activities in ways that our teams know clearly when we are, OR are not, moving toward the goal.

“who dropped the ball?”identifying the source of the team breakdown

When a sports team is working together to achieve a goal, dropping the ball ends the forward progress.

In a project team, even if there is not actual competition, there are often times when things stop moving forward. Things aren’t going the way they are supposed to and you are not seeing the results you would like. In such a moment, the team needs to identify where things went wrong and if any particular player was the source of the failure. This should NEVER be unto tearing that person apart.

If you can identify the breakdown, you can work to address it. You can try to bring healing or restoration at the point of failure. Maybe that team member needed better backup or more resources. Whatever the need may have been, you won’t fix it well and start moving forward if you don’t take the time to think it through.

Maybe the breakdown happened in a handoff. The pass moment is one of the most critical moments of any basketball game. The ball is moving from one player’s hands to another, often through open air. If an opponent can get in at just the right moment and gain control of the ball before it gets to the other player, the tide of the game is turned.

In a team setting, when a work task is passed from one player to the next, it’s important to make the new ownership clear. This is where our next metaphor comes in.

“the ball is in your court”team sharing roles on a project

My girls spent a brief time trying out youth tennis. It was rather painful to watch because they didn’t quite have the coordination to keep up with where the ball was moving over the course of a match. They tried hard though and I was proud of the attempt.

Doubles tennis is when two players compete on each side of the net, typically each taking responsibility if the ball comes to their half of the court. The girls’ coach kept telling the kids “you have to call it”. Inevitably, the ball would go to one girl’s side but the other girl was so focused on hitting it, they would run over top of each other. Alternatively, both girls would be watching one side of the court and not go after the ball when it went to the other side.

As a team works together on a project, it is important that everyone clearly understand who is responsible for details every step of the way. If Sally thinks Jim is working on things and Jim thinks Fred took over that piece and Fred was out of the office, we find ourselves making no progress.

If everyone thinks someone else is on it, no one will be investing energy toward the goal. If you’re a team leader or even a player on the team, take time to make sure everyone knows who is responsible for different functions each step of the process.


These are just a few of the common ones I have seen in my experience. I use these metaphors all regularly even though I would not be likely to excel at any of these sports in actual practice. What about you? Are there any others you can think of?


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