Season 1, Episode 3

Emotional intelligence in sports: a critical component of a sports leadership program

Marie [00:00:00] Emotional intelligence has long been referenced in corporate leadership but today’s guest talks about it in the context of sport. Jeff Bower is a Vice President of NBA team Phoenix Suns. He speaks about the role EI played in leading them to their first playoffs in 11 years. Welcome to Emotional Intelligence at Work brought to you by Genos International. Ben, hi again.

Ben [00:00:29] It’s great to be with you, Marie.

Marie [00:00:30] And great to be with you and really excited to have you here to join us, Jeff.

Jeff [00:00:34] Well, thank you, it’s great to be with you.

Marie [00:00:37] Firstly, tell us about how you even came to learn of emotional intelligence.

Jeff [00:00:41] The whole thing was a bit accidental. A long time acquaintance, Jeff Summers from EI, North America reached out to me. We had initially met years and years ago at a college basketball game and mutual friends of ours introduced us and that was it. And then last year, Jeff reached out to me, I believe, over a weekend, saw what I was doing and some of the other things that I had been involved with as well and started to explain to me what he’s been up to and what the uses and the whole EI programming that he and Debbie had embarked upon. And it struck a lot of curiosity in my mind. And so we continued to talk about it and dug into it. And during the whole outset of the pandemic, we really immersed ourselves completely into it and all that emotional intelligence and how it factors into everything that we do, both at work as well as personally.

Marie [00:01:52] Was there a particular circumstance that was going on that made it timely for you?

Jeff [00:01:57] Nothing in particular but it fit right along with a number of things that we had been researching and studying and looking to grow a little bit of a knowledge base on. We were always constantly looking at ways to increase performance, performance of our athletes, performance of our staff, performance of all the groups that we are a part of and the exploration of this opened up doors that I thought were really, had the potential to be very beneficial. And I’m really happy that we’ve been able to go down that path because it’s such a part of everyday life.

Marie [00:02:37] And what was it specifically that you did with Genos North America? Was it a certification course?

Jeff [00:02:43] Well, exactly, after finding out the amount of information and the amount of questions that it could pose, Jeff then explained to me how I could really dig into this if I were to go through the Genos programming and so that’s exactly what we embarked on. And I went through the Genos training and the teachings and the exercises and found the more with each exercise and with each option I was finding, it was just running through my mind how this would be so beneficial here. This would be a real asset to have in this use case, how helpful it would be to be able to apply it in this type of setting because everything that we do in sports is all about the human touch and the relationships that get built and the relationships that get stressed over time that add up to peak performance or failed performance in many cases. This was something that I thought could be an extreme benefit to us and to all the people that we work with and around the game.

Marie [00:04:00] We’re going to talk at length about the benefits for the team. Did you see any benefits for yourself personally as either as a leader within the Phoenix Suns or personally at home and in your day-to-day life?

Jeff [00:04:13] Well, I think the first things that jumped out is the almost of a safety net, of a checklist going into sometimes very candid situations and conversations and ability to go into those things with a little bit of a plan, with a little bit of an idea of one or two areas that are probably the key parts to have a successful outcome. And being able to kind of plan and have almost a checklist, if you would like a pilot would that could be followed in coming to an outcome or coming to a successful discussion and really understanding what people are looking for what people’s motivating needs may be in order to move things in the right direction.

Ben [00:05:06] Jeff, you talk about performance enhancement. When I was a student at Swinburne, we did the Hawthorn Football Club, which is a football club team here in the Adelaide Thunderbirds, which a netball team. And if you think about the dimensions of the Genos model, self-management was one of the things that really predicted players performance. Those players who were able to better manage and regulate their emotions, you know, they were on the football field coping better with the sledging that was going on. And I think similarly on the netball court. Are there any particular dimensions of the model or aspects of it that you’re seeing contribute to player performance?

Jeff [00:05:43] Well, I think the interesting thing is emotional reasoning is such a huge part of things in any stressful situation and certainly at high-level athletics would be within that umbrella. The idea that that emotion is going to be a part of every decision and every outcome, let’s say, is intriguing to me because we’re not trying to remove emotion or eliminate emotion. But this has helped you kind of crystallise the idea that emotion will be a part of every decision and will be a part of every action and reaction. Understanding its role and how to use that emotion to your benefit is something that I think is very valuable.

Ben [00:06:34] Can you talk about the staff around an elite sports team like the Phoenix Suns, talk about EI and coaching? You know, what difference do you see EI make to the way a coach interacts with players?

Jeff [00:06:48] First of all, I think the awareness drives you towards being a better listener and drives you towards trying to figure out what’s being unsaid that is probably where the answer lies. I think so much of success hinges on being able to pull out the answer or pull out the behaviour as opposed to put it in some of the young men that we all work with as a coaching staff or as a front office staff or anyone in athletics. We deal with the elite and with great people and driven people in many times how a problem or a conflict or a challenge is presented determines how people respond to it. And having that understanding that give them a chance to find the answer and nudge them along the way, whether it’s through realising the emotional reason aspect of it or the having a little bit more empathy in the situation as to how it may make the individual feel, every phase of your model is a factor, frankly.

Ben [00:08:13] When I’m hearing you speak, I’m thinking about behavioural agility. You know that capacity to kind of read the room, the capacity to read an individual and really take a more individualised approach to what you’re doing, whether it be demonstrating a little bit more empathy, asking the right question that gets the person thinking. In the corporate world, Jeff, when we roll out an EI programme, we see sometimes a 5% improvement, a 10% improvement, sometimes a 15% improvement. I know at least with the elite sports teams that we’ve dealt with here, even if you get a 1% or 2% improvement, it can have incredible benefits. The Phoenix Suns have come a long way, haven’t they, over the last couple of years?

Jeff [00:08:53] It’s been terrific and it’s been a great process. We have a coaching staff that is their actions and their behaviours and the relationships that they’ve built with our team have really been a driving force behind our improvement. And the trust that exists between our players and our coaches that the trust that exists in our locker room from player-to-player has really been our strategic weapon. It’s been a competitive advantage for us as a group and something that we’ve benefited from greatly. And without formalising it, the way in the interactions of our team and our coaches and really our entire organisation now how we’ve made progress is through the shared activities and goals and drives of the entire organisation. And it’s happened quickly for us over the last couple of years. But there’s been a lot of investment and a lot of hard learning growing over the years leading up to the last couple of years and especially now.

Marie [00:10:15] From a practical perspective, you did the EI certification through Genos and then have you been building programmes and rolling them out yourself for the office team with the coaching team and the players? Practically how did it work?

Jeff [00:10:29] We actually had Debbie do a presentation on EI and the aspects of it for our entire staff. And then following up from that, we have weekly dispersals of examples of EI and how it’s been a factor in different businesses, different organisations, different industries where EI has had a role in solutions. And then throughout our interactions, we have utilised many of the areas in the concepts to adjust our strategies and our questions along the way. So it’s been a rather organic integration that has been something that we’ve just continued to build layer upon layer.

Marie [00:11:20] Do the people around you see the benefit or recognise the change as well?

Jeff [00:11:25] I think they see the change in results and I think they see the shared sense of what we’re trying to do and how we get there is greatly influenced by a lot of the concepts of EI, frankly.

Ben [00:11:43] One of the things that I’ve certainly found about with the concept, Jeff, is that it’s one of those things, the more you study it, the more you kind of realise you’re at the tip of the iceberg. Looking kind of into the future, both in your own organisation, perhaps, but also for some advice, perhaps for elite sports generally, what do you see as other areas and potential for EI in your space?

Jeff [00:12:07] Well, I think emotional intelligence obviously is something that is a part of any interaction between players, coaches, front offices, any place where you have to work with more than one people. Your ability to succeed in many ways is going to be determined by EI. Personally, I really feel that this is where the analytics movement was 15 years ago now that it’s become a way of life in sports. I believe that human performance and EI and mind setting and the ability to take a proactive approach with mindset and strategies to allow yourself to be more successful is where our industry is going to go and that’s where the competitive advantage really lies. The ability to turn intangible assets into tangible outcomes was a challenge that was given to us several years ago by an owner and that really ignited a lot of thoughts, like how do we take these relationships in our locker room that we have? And as you grow a franchise and as you grow a basketball team, how do you turn those relationships into strategic advantages that create competitive edges? And that’s all about relationships; it’s all about performance. It’s all about selection. It’s all about finding the right guys that fit the picture that you want your group to be and that’s a large part of this.

Ben [00:13:55] That’s one of the probably the biggest things that’s been really resonating with me lately is how EI really oils, if you like, the quality of relationships. I’ve been looking at some of the work like that of Barbara Fredrickson. She’s got a book out called Love 2.0. If you think about Susan Pinker in her book The Village Effect about centenarians, the thing about relationships and enhancing them is it helps you lead a happier, healthier and longer life. Also perhaps one of the things you’ve given me here is that is a real key to performance, particularly in elite sports, I think it’s a key to performance, obviously, in organisations as well.

Jeff [00:14:34] What really is and it’s to me, the interesting thing is in looking at that performance and looking at ways to try to study ways to enhance performance, this started with the study of underperformance and looking at so many failed teams, failed businesses, failed enterprises and looking at the academic research and the case studies of failure that some of the common things that came up in each one of those all dealt with people not having a clear outlook on what was expected of them, people not having a clear picture of the goal of the organisation or of the goal of the group. People misreading and misinterpreting things that were said that created the exact opposite type of reaction than was intended. All of these underperformance factors many times have dealt with the interaction between individuals and groups. And the more we looked at these failures, the more intent and the more practical it came to start to look at what drives communication, what drives clear outlooks, what drives painting a picture of what success looks like. I’d spent a lot of time in the past working with the group at the Pacific Institute and one of their founding principles is all about having that replacement picture that you can describe in vivid detail so that you know what good looks. And you know what your destination is when you get there and that just fit right along with a lot of the Genos and the EI training and programming.

Ben [00:16:31] For those listeners who know our model, what we’re really talking a lot about here today is emotional reasoning. And I know you’ve used that term, Jeff. This is the skill of stepping back in and thinking about emotions and the information in emotions and using that information strategically with facts and figures to help make decisions. And I’m really intrigued that you brought that one out because I was expecting to hear more around emotional regulation and emotional management. And I love, of all the six competencies; emotional reasoning is one of my favourites. And just touching on what you are talking about there in terms of cooperates, in the corporate world; emotional reasoning is like your moral compass. You know, it’s sort of like your social licence to operate in some ways. Are you thinking about the good that your organisation does in the world? And have you got that as a guiding light towards the decision-making and things that go on and a lot of the corporate collapses we’ve had here lately in Australia, not corporate collapses but corporate issues, if you like. Like in banking, we’ve got a Royal Commission going on in banking and really at the heart of that is a lack of emotional reasoning, greed, the emotion of greed, getting in the way of good decision-making in the organisation.

Jeff [00:17:43] The interesting thing is when you have uncommon results and when you have that team that has really overachieved and really performed at a level so much higher than they’ve been expected, many of the times when that happens, the conditions that when you look back at it, those players were playing for something beyond just winning. And those players had a bond between them, where their effort, their amount of work invested, the sweat equity put into the foundation is generally something that they don’t want to let down their team mate and they don’t want to let down their group or their fan base or their city. They’re playing for something more than just winning. And that, I think, comes into play a lot from an emotional standpoint. They’ve tied their effort into, this is more important and this is, what drives us is I don’t want to let my team-mates down and I don’t want to let my coach down. And I don’t want to let these people down that care so much about us from an emotional standpoint.

Marie [00:19:01] With sports, I mean, with your team, you must every season swap players, buy new players, etc. And so you have new people that come into the fold, how do you accelerate the process of those relationships in that trust building?

Jeff [00:19:15] One of the most important things is knowing who you want to be and knowing what your team makeup is going to be all about because if you want a tough team, you have to recruit and bring in tough players. If you want a team that shoots the ball well, you have to bring in players that shoot the ball well that’s what we found over the year. The idea of changing the behaviour habits of a player and he’ll be different for you that rarely ever happens. So finding players that fit the DNA of your team, that fit the culture and the chemistry of your team and really that match your values, as an organisation is such a crucial part of this. When you bring a new guy into your group, basically you’re saying this is who we want to be. And this new fella, he fits the rest of our players. And that’s something that we spend a great deal of time with, researching and trying to find out what their patterns and habits have been from the past and what we’re likely to see them bring to our team right now.

Marie [00:20:32] Jeff, I understand from you that the NBA has put an emphasis on the mental health of players and helping players from that perspective, how do you plan on using emotional intelligence to assist your players with the right management of their mental well-being?

Jeff [00:20:50] Sure, I think the league has really made an emphasis on mental health and having support resources available for players and that’s been widely received and a great thing. Many cases, though, that is, those are extreme cases that are in need, perhaps of medical or care from trained professionals. I think where the need exists and the opportunity exists is for proactive ways that a player can learn a strategy, learn a tool, understand how he’s feeling and understand how that’s affecting his performance that he can learn to regulate and learn to take care of his emotions to make that change quick. He can learn what it feels like when he’s starting to get a little bit overly emotional and he’s starting to maybe step over the line into not being as effective as he could be. And these are just small strategies, small tools to create that awareness, to make a change, make it fast and be able to move along into your more normal way of doing things.

Ben [00:22:10] That’s really happening here a lot in the corporate sector as well, lots of work around understanding mental health and mental health issues, lots of work around psychological safety. And I think that is really great for those extreme cases that you’re talking about but there’s a real [00:22:23]Echinacea [0.0s] part, if I can use that metaphorically as well. You know, it’s that what do we get everybody proactively doing on a more day-to-day basis just to polish up to finesse to take their own mental health, their capacity to deal with stress to the to the next level. And I think there are real opportunities in that space. We are doing things like helping people with thinking strategies, which we’ve heard a lot from you today on the podcast, you know, perspective taking, setting boundaries. We’re doing a lot around the science of habit formation and how people think about the new little things that they can do. And just even introducing to people, Jeff, the notion of stretch and continuous improvement, it’s not about feeling 20% better or even 10% better to draw on Dan Harris to feel 2% better to do those small number of things that just gives you that 1% edge this week that you didn’t have last week, by way of example. There’s a real gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, in that space.

Jeff [00:23:22] No question, Ben and if I could add, one of the most used phrases in sports is we can only control what we can control and not worry about anything else. And I agree, I don’t have any resistance to that statement. But what I would like to add is people and players today oftentimes don’t realise how much control they really have. We’re only going to worry about what we can control. But you know what? We can control an incredible amount of things. When you consider how you think the strategies that you use to process situations, how you feel, how you talk, your self-talk, your language, how that makes you feel, how that makes you act and does all that drive you towards the outcome that you want? We really do have control over a lot more than sometimes we want to think we do because it’s safer,

Ben [00:24:23] I suppose, to finish off, Jeff, I’d really like to ask you if you reflect back on your experience to date with EI and the things that it’s done for you, what would you say to leaders who are currently sitting back thinking about or considering bringing in some EI training and development to their organisations or teams? What are one or two key things that you’d say?

Jeff [00:24:42] I think what I would say, Ben, is that not only is this a tool, what it is, it is a way to help people create value, create value for themselves. It’s a way for you to really reach out to your people, to give them a set of tools that they can use to be more effective in whatever their job is or their relationship is with their team or with their business or with their boardroom. I think that’s how valuable this tool really can be. Any time you can help an individual be more effective and add more value to their business, to their team, to their company, you’ve helped that person. And I think for me that’s been an immense eye opening experience because you see people change and you see people be more open and more willing to listen instead of more intent on having their viewpoint being heard. And that’s when we see results change and outcomes grow and impacts become multiplied across the board.

Marie [00:25:56] It’s been an absolute pleasure. I’ve learnt so much from you today, Jeff, thank you so much for joining us.

Jeff [00:26:03] Well, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

Ben [00:26:06] Yes, thanks, from Genos, Jeff, it’s been great to have you on the show. Thank you very much.

Jeff [00:26:10] Thank you.

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