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What Sports Teach us about Continuous Improvement

Posted by Kelsey Gaertner

Mar 8, 2023 9:30:00 AM

When Jeremy Sochan of the San Antonio Spurs steps up to the free-throw line, he shoots using one hand. 

Even if you aren’t an avid basketball fan, you probably know that players typically use two hands for shotmaking, not one. When Sochan, an NBA rookie, switched his shooting form in December of 2022, he intrigued the league, sparking discussion from commentators and the press about the bizarre shot.

The story goes that the long-time head coach of Spurs, Greg Popovich, approached Sochan and asked him to use one hand instead of two while at the foul line to improve his poor free-throw performance. The reasoning for the change is that when he used two hands, his right elbow wouldn’t be square to the basket, disrupting his aim. When he removed an unnecessary hand from the process, his shooting elbow was straight. In Sochan’s case, a guiding hand did more harm than good. 

In other words, he eliminated waste, a key principle of Lean Strategy. By simplifying his shooting process, his proficiency improved. The data reflects the improvement as well. Sochan went from a poor 46% average in December to an almost 70% average as of the February All-Star Break.

Despite being far removed from the business world where the philosophy of Continuous Improvement is implemented daily, a sports team is incorporating Lean strategy into its practices. A simple, unorthodox free throw inspired me to examine what else sports can teach us about Continuous Improvement. 

Use Data to Guide Improvement

You can’t watch a sports broadcast without being inundated with various statistics: assists, shots on goal, rushing yards, and more. While these stats help inform and entertain viewers, they are also valuable improvement tools for players and coaches.

Major League Baseball is a great example. With 162 games in the regular season, even the best teams can’t win every time they step onto the field. However, they can learn from each game. The most elite teams in the MLB today analyze their execution on a granular level, measuring everything from batting averages and launch angles to more obscure statistics such as “Win Probability Added.” Great coaching staffs take these measurements, design a strategy, implement small changes, and measure the results: all key phases in continuous improvement. 

Practice Your Craft

When Roger Federer began his professional Tennis career, his backhand was one of the weakest aspects of his game. By the time he retired in 2022, his backhand was glorified by critics and fans alike as being one of the most beautiful and effective shots in the sport. What happened during his career to make such a dramatic change possible?

At no point in a professional athlete’s career can they stop practicing. With evolving competition, the need to improve is constant. Federer was no exception. He knew opponents would target his backhand to exploit one of his few weaknesses. It needed to improve. For years, he constantly worked on his backhand, tweaking and perfecting it over time. Today, an onlooker would never know that his backhand used to be a liability. 

Small, continuous improvements over time can turn weaknesses into strengths and result in incredible changes. 

Focus on People

Imagine a quarterback that lectures an offensive lineman on how to do their job. Imagine a coach that doesn’t listen when their star player has a new idea on how to break down the defense. Better yet, imagine a sports owner who calls plays from the comfort of their executive suite. It simply doesn’t work. 

Leadership in sports, just like in business, is in place to guide decision-making and facilitate progress toward collective goals. However, when the time comes to hit a buzzer-beater or score a tying goal, it is the players who need to make it happen. 

When discussing businesses, it may be more difficult to understand the necessity of bringing frontline workers into the improvement process. However, similar to the importance of the players in sports, frontline workers’ first-hand input is crucial to create meaningful change. 

Topics: Spread Continuous Improvement, 8 Wastes of Lean

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