Safety Leadership and Sports Analogies

Safety Leadership and Sports Analogies


By Josh Williams, Ph. D.

Fellow sports fans are lamenting the lack of televised sports in the COVID era. In fact, some are suggesting the lack of sports are actually creating low levels of anxiety and depression in more passionate fans. “One of the first things to recognize is that, yes, sports is a form of entertainment. But it is also a source of social connectiveness with family, friends and with a team,” said Dr. Mark Terjesen, a professor of psychology at St. John’s. “For some, the absence of sports compared to everything else may seem frivolous. But, for the rest of us, it’s a way of life. Many fans have a deep, personal history with teams and with fellow fans." (Gross, 2020).

In thinking about effective safety leadership, it may be useful (and fun) to consider lessons learned from the sports world.

1. Focus on the process. Sports psychologists frequently talk about “staying in the moment” and focusing on the process instead of the result. Any 10-handicap golfer knows that thinking about “breaking 80” on the 14th hole during a good round is a sure-fire way to blow it coming down the stretch. In the safety world, leaders need to focus on proactive measures like increased leader-field engagement, open close call discussions, and high-quality observations to achieve the outcome of reduced injuries and incidents. Overemphasizing results (outcome statistics) may actually create tension with employees and encourage the underreporting of injuries.
2. Learn from setbacks. Human performance principles remind us that human beings are fallible and make mistakes. A common sports refrain is “dust yourself off” when you’ve been knocked down. The sports world is full of these types of stories. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Phil Mickelson was 0 for 52 in major championships before finally winning the 2004 Masters golf tournament. Bethany Hamilton became a top 50 surfer in the world after a shark bit off her left arm. Safety leaders also suffer setbacks when employees are hurt on the job. It is critical to learn from these events to make sure they never happen again. It’s also important to remember that we need to learn from smaller events like minor injuries and close calls which often, except for luck, could have been more severe.
3. Learn from your successes. One of the biggest fallacies in the sports world is, “you learn more from your mistakes than your successes.” Tell that to Tiger Woods or Tom Brady. Successful people in all walks of life learn how to achieve. They then find ways to replicate it over and over again. Leaders who consistently focus on proactive steps to improve safety are reinforced when safety culture improves and injury numbers drop. In an increasingly hectic work life, leaders need to step back and consider the good things they’re doing to support their employees and make sure they continue to capitalize on their successes.
4. Teamwork. In 1983, Jim Valvano’s NC State Wolfpack stunned the top seeded Houston Cougars (with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clide Drexler) in the NCAA college basketball finals. Fans remember Valvano running on the court after the buzzer searching for players to hug. This is largely regarded as the greatest Cinderella story in the history of college sports. Despite vastly inferior talent, Valvano’s group exhibited exceptional teamwork throughout the tournament to win the championship. The importance of teamwork applies to all organizational settings. For safety, improving group cohesion and social support leads to a statistically significant reduction in workplace injuries (Nahrgang et al., 2010). Years ago we worked with an oil drilling company that had serious challenges at one of their rigs. This included several injuries, high turnover, and even fistfights with one of their crews. Surprisingly, a different crew with great rapport on the same rig had almost no injuries, great production rates, and no turnover. The difference between the two crews was simple: teamwork.
5. Have fun. A whole body of study is dedicated to athletes being “in the zone.” When athletes are in the zone, they report heightened awareness, low levels of anxiety, and exhibit more creativity. This was seen with Sugar Ray Leonard making clown faces at Roberto Duran in the middle of their epic second bout, Roger Federer trying (and pulling off) physics defying, low percentage shots in crucial moments at Wimbledon, and Barry Sanders stutter stepping his way around large defenders with Houdini-like moves. At these moments, exceptional athletes are having fun despite the enormous pressure of the moment. Leaders who are under constant pressure for safety (and competing demands) need to remember to have fun. As an example, one leader took his budget for safety signs and decided to let his employees create their own signs for small cash rewards. The winning poster was a drawing of Forest Gump running with all required PPE with the heading “Safety is as safety does.” Employees had a great time creating their own posters and giving coworkers a hard time about their posters. The stressors of the job are constant but this shouldn’t preclude having fun in the pursuit of improved performance.

While the sports world is on pause, it’s worthwhile to consider that life lessons should be applied to our work lives. Success is success. The principles for improved performance translate from the sports world to the safety world.


At Propulo, we help leaders use their own life lessons to create a plan for sustained safe production culture improvement.