Win One for the Gipper: Sales Lessons Learned from 5 of the Greatest Coaches of All Time

November 24, 2015 Mike Work

If we can learn and replicate the methods that someone else used to succeed, then we can succeed too. And we don’t have to be in the same field as the person who used the methods for the ideas to be applicable.

There is a lot of merit in learning the techniques that great coaches used to enhance their game plans, strategies, structures, and ultimately success, and then applying those techniques in our jobs as sales leaders.

We shouldn’t be hindered by the limited belief that what we do is so unique we have to reinvent the wheel and compose a genius game plan from scratch. There are crucial similarities between coaching athletes and coaching a sales force.

Another thing to consider is that coaching is BIG business. Every college and professional football and basketball team has invested zillions of dollars into preparing, testing, monitoring, and scientifically analyzing how to get players and teams to perform at the highest level. Why not piggyback on their budgets and efforts and copy....errrr I mean research....what has worked for them?

Of course, there are some obvious strategies for coaching success that can definitely be applied to your sales force. For example, all of these apply:

  • Recruit the best players.
  • Get the best performance out of each individual player.
  • Make the most out of the synergy of the collective players (team).
  • Effectively integrate the players and the staff.
  • Make the most out of every game.
  • Have the best season possible.
  • Inspire the team when losing and when winning.

Now, here is a look at 5 historic coaches and their strategies that we can use in business today:

1. Knute Rockne

Knute Rockne

Coach of University of Notre Dame football 1918-1930

Image Source: Knute Rockne on ship's deck by Bain Collection Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Famous for: “Win one for the Gipper”

In 13 years as Notre Dame football head coach, Knute Rockne led his "Fighting Irish" to 105 victories, 12 losses, 5 ties, and 3 national championships, including 5 undefeated seasons without a tie. Rockne posted the highest all-time winning percentage (.881) for an American FBS/Division I college football coach.

“Win one for the Gipper” is the classic line that the legendary coach used in 1928 to inspire his team during a halftime speech. They went on to win 12-6 against the previously undefeated Army football team.

Rockne got the line from Notre Dame player George Gipp, who was terminally ill when Rockne went to see him in the hospital. Rockne recalled that he went up to Gipp’s bedside, and Gipp told him:

I've got to go, Rock. It's all right. I'm not afraid. Some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy.

This inspirational speech went on to become an iconic tradition, inspiring coaches and athletes for decades, and it was even used in a movie in which Gipp was played by future president Ronald Reagan. Reagan went on to use the phrase throughout his political career.

The example of “Win one for the Gipper” is a piece of American lore, but more importantly, it teaches us how to use a tragedy to inspire our squads to transcend their normal behavior and results.

The Lesson is Inspiration

The Oxford Dictionary defines inspiration as: The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. But even more literally, it means to bring spirit to a person or situation, and in some old definitions, it means to “bring life.”

Whether you are coaching a world-class athlete or managing the world’s greatest sales force, every person on your team will have moments, hours, days, or even longer periods of time when they are in a slump. It’s the sales and SDR manager’s job to inspire them (bring life) back into their consciousness so they can perform at their highest level on their bad days or during crises and slumps.

How You Can Inspire Your Team during Slumps

Be a leader and protect your team. Nothing inspires more than when a leader gets in the trenches and works long and hard with the troops to achieve the team’s monthly goals. If you’re a manager, it might a good idea to stay late and actively prospect with your team.

Show them how to get new business, pound the phone, and show how resilience and determination work to hit goals. Don’t blame the team for the slump; slumps are a normal part of business. Instead, inspire by example. “We all have to achieve these numbers together.”

2. Tom Landry

Tom Landry

Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys professional football team 1960-1988

Image Source: Tom Landry sculpture by Jim Bowen CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Famous for: Fedora hat

Tom Landry coached the newly formed Dallas Cowboys in 1960. He went 0-11-1 in his first year and seemingly was on thin ice after a few rough campaigns. However, the coach hit his stride with a vastly improved squad in 1966, kicking off a streak of 20 consecutive winning seasons that included 18 postseason appearances, 13 division championships, and 5 NFC titles.

It was as a New York Giants assistant coach that Landry began wearing his trademark fedoras. One reason was obvious. New York is cold during the football season, and he needed something to cover his bald head. The other? He decided it would be best to look as businesslike as possible on the sideline.

There is a critical lesson here. Until then, a lot of coaches dressed in athletic attire since they were in an athletic business. But Landry knew that he needed to be an example of leadership. As the commander of the fleet, his uniform needed to demand respect. In fact, whether we are giving a presentation or are in the position of leading a sales force, we can almost never overdress.

This doesn’t mean you should wear a tuxedo to a presentation. But it is important to lead by example, and your appearance is the most obvious example there can be.

The Lesson is Preparation

Preparation in sports is about getting the team as physically and mentally fit as possible and about practicing the plays before the game to a level of being able to recite them automatically without having to think. Preparation for sales is no different.

How You Can Prepare Your Team to Be Mentally Fit

I had a sales trainer once who would spend all day making his students practice their presentations on each other. His philosophy was: The more prepared you are with your presentation, the more control and confidence you have with the customer.

This level of preparation enables the athlete (and the salesperson) to let go of the conscious constraint of the fundamental things and allow the spirit to flow through them. We all know this as being “in the zone!”

The challenge for us sales and SDR managers is, what can we do to assist our sales force to be prepared? In the case of athletics, the coaches provide the game tapes to review performance, the physical trainers to make sure the athlete is in top shape, and the best equipment for training and performance.

To improve sales performance, try these techniques:

  • If you’re a sales manager, have your sales reps call you once a month and pitch. Are they getting better month after month? Ask them tough, new questions each time. “Why shouldn’t I go with [enter competitor name]?” “What makes you different from [enter competitor name]?” “I saw your [enter newest feature] feature, how does that work exactly?”
  • If you work at a smaller company, have them pitch your CEO or founder twice a year. Especially when it comes to tech founders, no one knows the product more than that person. They can provide the best feedback. Additionally, your reps will probably perfect their pitch for the top boss.
  • Datanyze uses a quiz system to improve their reps’ product knowledge. It provides a non-threatening but reliable form of accountability.

How can we go the extra mile to prepare as we expect our teams to prepare? Is there any technology that will give our sales people an advantage? Is there intel on the market, our customers, or our competitors that will give our team a boost? How much lift will that one extra early morning call to our sales people provide? Be the change you want to see.

3. Phil Jackson

Phil Jackson

Head coach of the Chicago Bulls professional basketball team from 1989-1998; head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers professional basketball team from 1999-2004

Image Source: Phil Jackson 3 by Keith Allison CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

Famous for: Winning over 900 games as a head coach; known as the “Zen Master”

Phil Jackson was the first coach in history to bring Eastern religious philosophies to the gymnasium. Jackson, along with sports psychologists, introduced teaching “mindfulness” to help players get into the “zone” quicker.

A Library Journal review of his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior states that “Jackson demonstrates how he adapts the precepts of Zen Buddhism, the ways of the Lakota Sioux, and other alternative styles to the task of coaching. They range from group meditation sessions, to hanging Lakota warrior items on the locker room shelf, to splicing segments of the movie Wizard of Oz into game films to make a point."

The funny byproduct of this teaching is it led 7-foot-1-inch Shaquille O’Neal to call himself “The Big Aristotle.”

I would like to be referred to as 'The Big Aristotle'
-Shaquille O'Neal

The lesson we can all learn from the Zen Master and the Big Aristotle is that leading our teams (or sales forces) to dig deeper into their own mindfulness will take the entire organization to a higher level of consciousness and ultimately higher production.

Phil Jackson proved this by transforming his players and winning more championships than any other coach during his time in the NBA. This is extremely remarkable since the level of excellence in the past 20 years has risen to the point that there is incredible parity in the sport. So, to win one championship is awesome; to win 11 times is Zen-like.

The Lesson is Mindfulness

It is about time that sports and business started talking about concepts that were once reserved for the Dalai Lama and sweat lodges in Arizona. The truth is that, for everyone, including the athlete and the salesperson, mindfulness is critical to being at the pinnacle of your game.

Psychologists have known this for decades. Historically, the best of the best athletes were in a state of mindfulness, but most of them were not aware of it or didn’t know what to call it.

The term “mindfulness” itself is a bit of a misnomer because it seems to suggest that you should be fully in your mind, trapped by thoughts and feelings. But the true definition means being aware, moment-to-moment, of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective. In other words, be aware and observe reality absolutely in the present moment.

Great athletes will tell you that when they are in a state of mindfulness (or in “the zone”), they are absolutely aware of everything that is happening and that time seems to slow down. This level of mindfulness will not only bring you and your sales force incredible results, it will also vastly improve the quality of your lives.

How do we teach our sales teams mindfulness?

  1. The first thing we need to do is convince them that mindfulness is not some "new age mysto" stuff. There is overwhelming empirical data indicating that practices that increase mindfulness, such as meditation, greatly improves the quality of our performances and our lives.
  2. Second, we need to set aside time each day, preferably before the start of work, for our sales force to become mindful. This can be as simple as setting up a 5 minute "session of silence" each day so everyone can meditate. If they think this sound corny, remind them of Shaq and Phil Jackson :).
  3. Finally, we should encourage our sales force to take this practice home so they can incorporate it into their daily lives. This habit takes time, like all habits, to become a daily routine. But, the payoff will be a measurable increase in productivity and the biggest payoff will be the increase in serenity throughout the company.

4. Mike Krzyzewski

Mike Krzyzewski

Head coach of the Duke University “Blue Devils” men's basketball team from 1980 to present

Image Source: Krzyzewski at Pentagon by Department of Defense/William D. Moss Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Famous for: Winning the NCAA Division 1 national championship 5 times; known as “Coach K”

A Publishers Weekly review of Mike Krzyzewski’s book Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business, and Life states that “Duke basketball coach Krzyzewski is today's most successful NCAA coach. The son of working-class Polish immigrants, he got a scholarship to West Point, where he became an accomplished player before becoming a coach.

“His breezy approach is direct and simple: what's most important is working as a team toward a common goal – not necessarily to win the game, but to play the best possible game.

“Coach K says ‘there are five fundamental qualities that make every team great: communication, trust, collective responsibility, caring, and pride.’

“Approaching each season the same way, he avails himself to his players, encouraging them to spend time at his home and with his family, while emphasizing the importance of keeping up with academics and enjoying the overall experience of college. In fact, Krzyzewski tries to hire assistant coaches who have played for him because they're versed in on- and off-court problems.”

Coach K has been known to offer business advice. He states that "business, like basketball, is a game of adjustments. So be ready to adjust." He occasionally refers to coaches as leaders in his book, and his coaching strategies are useful business strategies.

The Lesson is Adaptation

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” ~ Charles Darwin

The role of the coach is to take all the input from the players, the results of past performances, the scouting information on the next opponent, and make the proper adaptations for the team in order to perform at the optimal level. This lesson holds true for the sales and SDR managers as well.

We have to be aware of the advantage in perspective we have as sales and SDR managers because we see the sum results of many people’s actions and experiences. This gives us a macro perspective based on a multitude of microscopic results, and our goal is to see the trends, apps, and hacks that the individual salesperson can’t see from their perspective.

The salesperson is often “too far in the forest to see the trees.” Therefore, they have a hard time adapting because they cannot see the big picture. This is where we come in. We can use our guidance to help them adapt.

How do you put adaptation in action?

  1. Research the areas and the reasons for adaptation. This can be done by analyzing the competition, having the courage to ask your customers how you can serve them better, and asking everyone within the company how we can all do better.
  2. Adapt slowly and naturally. Take things slowly and deliberately. Remember, nothing in nature tolerates radical change - even the butterfly takes up to a month for complete metamorphosis.
  3. Lead by example. Be the first to embrace the changes.

5. John Wooden

John Wooden

Head coach of the UCLA “Bruins” men’s basketball team 1948-1975

Image Source: John Wooden - Southern Campus 1960 by Associated Students, UCLA Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

Famous for: Winningest Coach in NCAA Division Athletics; known as “The Wizard of Westwood”; author of Pyramid of Success

The publisher’s review of John Wooden’s book Pyramid of Success states that “John Wooden owns many unequaled and mostly unapproachable records as a coach. He led the legendary UCLA basketball team to 10 national championships between 1963 and 1975 and is without question the best coach in the history of collegiate basketball.“

His accomplishments on the court alone make him a fascinating person, but John Wooden is much more than a coach. He is a modern philosopher and author of Pyramid of Success, which is a plain-spoken guide to achieving success that is packed with good, honest, common sense.

“Pyramid of Success is about balance and love for what you do. Wooden says balance and love are the two most important ingredients in a person and that to nurture those attributes in one’s self and others is a fundamental element of success in any endeavor.”

The Lesson is Balance and Love

The application of John Wooden’s lesson from his epic book Pyramid of Success is something every business, sales team, and salesperson would find beneficial. Coach Wooden had a revolutionary way of looking at competition. He was more concerned with how every single person in his organization felt about the quality of their performance, relative to their skill level, above all other measurements, including the score.

The funny thing is that, even though Coach Wooden didn’t care about the score, he won more than any other coach. That is a lesson we can all use in every part of our lives. In many cases, we have become so fixated on the results that we have lost the magic that comes with loving and respecting the journey.

How do you help your team find balance and love?

Have each person on your sales team review themselves on a monthly basis. What you'll find is people will open up and reveal their core blocking issues. Work with them to help them overcome their blockers and achieve their goals. Real coaching is about helping and not chastising. Everyone is responsible for hitting their numbers - the question is: How are you helping them get there?


Books and movies have been created about these great coaches and leaders, and we could spend years discussing the details of why their leadership was so far ahead of the rest. The best application for us is to take these lessons and simplify them to their essence so we can implement them in an efficient way for our teams and sales forces.

The 5 essential lessons are Inspiration, Preparation, Mindfulness, Adaptation, and Balance and Love. (Well, I guess that is really 6 lessons since we are using 2 from the Wizard of Westwood.) These ingredients, used on a consistent basis, are the foundation for success. That leads us to the final lesson: Go the extra mile and give your audience, whether it is your sales team, your family, or your customer, more than you promised.

About the Author: Mike “Net” Work is a sales coach specializing in the synergy of networking, on and offline. Mike can be reached at

Featured Image Source: Reagan The Gipper by Reagan Library Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Mike “Net” Work is a sales coach specializing in the synergy of networking, on and offline. You can reach Mike at

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