How do rugby coaching and project management mix?

What did I learn from doing both?

My job is managing projects, I did projects with KPN, ING Bank, Nationale Nederlanden, MinDef and more and now within Shell Global IT, but I am also an experienced rugby coach. In these roles I asked myself many times what are similarities and differences between my work with both project – and rugby teams.

Working together

Before I give you my answer, please ask yourself why sport teams work together so well?

My take is they can work together because they have the ball!

The ball ‘connects’ all players actions. The player with the ball has the initiative, he can pass, run, engage his direct opponent in a duel, shoot/kick at goal. His teammates have to react to his actions. But they are not passive, they anticipate and run/swim into position and get ready for when they might get the ball and have to continue play.


This movement of players can be very structured in some sports like baseball or more loosely in my sport rugby. But learning this movement of play is not simple.

Anticipation and Rugby

So what is anticipation? Thinking ahead of course, but what does it mean in the rugby context? Rugby coach  and my mentor Jean Bidal helps his players by asking them these two questions: 1. Where is the Ball (what is my position relative to the Ball?) 2. Where should I be for when I get the ball (what will be my task). Asking yourself these two questions will help you to decide, take position and be ready.

The teams that perform well all have players that are extremely comfortable in taking that initiative and executing those options. They also excel in anticipating next actions because they have become experts in predicting what will happen next. The players all move in harmony, not only just the Ball Carrier. Obviously these teams have good clarity on roles and responsibilities required to perform the tasks at hand (and for rugby we have some very specific ones!). This allows them to control their attention to very outcome driven goals.

Roles for the Ball

The Ball drives the decision making, dictates the movement of players. There are some key points I coach rugby players from this perspective:

  • The Ball needs to be alive, always available for the next move, a big responsibility for the Ball Carrier;
  • Do not catch the ball standing still, anticipate and get it at speed (“Speed on the Ball!”);
  • There should always be more than one player available to catch the ball and continue the forward movement towards the goal line;

Can we re-use these roles in our project management work?

What does it take?

In grassroots rugby we train two – three times a week for our Saturday match, so it is a 3-5 hrs : 80 mins. ratio. Olympians train many many years for just a couple of games or races at the olympics.

In *Sacred Hoops* coach Phil Jackson describes how it took the Bulls two years to master the Triangle Offence system. This is a team of 5 full time professionals!

When we are lucky we have two weeks off work for technical training courses, most of the time it is just straight in the deep end! Completely opposite to sports: many hours of ‘game-time’ and very little practise hours.

So what is the relation to our work in the office?

Obviously we do not have a ball! But who has to take the initiative? Are we getting ready for when we “get the ball” and are responsible to continue the “movement of play”? Do we catch the ball at speed?

In my work as project manager I try to give visibility on what the rules of the games are and on who has the ball. Especially in IT infrastructure projects this is not always very obvious! Once we have clarity than the ball carrier and his teammates can “play” together.

What role do you take? How do you ‘project manage’ the movement of play in your team? Where is your “Ball”?

Corporate Speakers

So, Robin van Galen, Marc Lammers and all high performance sports coaches: no problem with you collecting some money in the corporate world. But that is not a high performance environment, dumb it down and just ask them “Who has the Ball?”.

I worked with the Management Team of KLM Passenger Services on this, they loved the metaphors and actually took a rugby ball back to the office to show each other who had the initiative.


Well, there are many books about team management. Sports coaches sell us managers their success stories too, but would they survive in the corporate world? I doubt it.

Books I like and learned a lot from are:

  • The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle, do sport teams work together smarter? Yes, because they have the ball!
  • The Fearless Organizations, by Amy C. Edmondson, yes I hope you can create a fearless team, but Amy talks about no fear to make mistakes, to take on a challenge;
  • Phil Jackson and more about that Triangle Offence in this post;
  • And the Bible of course: Les Fondamentaux du Rugby (in French…);


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