The sports metaphor as motivator

by | 12.10.2020

“With 100-metre runners, everyone has to be particularly fast on their own. But with a rowing figure of eight, it doesn’t help if each one of them performs at their best. You have to agree and coordinate with each other to win.”¹

I read this sentence in a recent article. It was about wrong feedback on the job and about competition that reduces performance. And as so often, I had the impression that the metaphor, the image for conveying a message was not coherent. To compare an individual sport (100-metre run) with a coordinatively demanding team sport (rowing) does not make sense to me. Even if it was a 4 * 100-metre relay race, in which 4 runners per team perform sequentially, in a rowing eights the 8 team members perform simultaneously. In addition, the distance between the races varies (the shortest distance in a rowing figure of eight is 350 metres and the longest in the annual comparison between the Oxford and Cambridge university teams – the so-called Boat Race – is no less than 6,779 metres²). And of course the duration (approx. 10 seconds for the 100 metre race or approx. 40 seconds for the 4 * 100 metre relay race versus approx. 18 minutes for the boat race) cannot be compared.

Of course, you might object now that a metaphor merely tries to emphasise something by means of a pictorial description and to translate it into another world of concepts. True. But unfortunately metaphors often have to be interpreted and that is exactly what I find difficult to do. And as a result, I doubt in the context of companies that metaphors and especially sports metaphors have the desired effect, for example on the motivation of employees.

Quotations for encouragement

While researching this article, I stumbled upon many funny quotes from the world of sport.³ Footballers seem to have a talent for phrasing that almost brings tears of laughter to my eyes:

  • “The cards have been re-diced.” – Oliver Kahn, three-time world goalkeeper, now a member of the board of FC Bayern Munich
  • “You mustn’t talk everything as bad as it really was.” – Fredi Bobic, former striker of the German national team, today board member for sports at Eintracht Frankfurt
  • “You don’t always have to look for the salt in the soup.” – Philipp Lahm, football world champion, today Managing Director of DFB EURO GmbH and member of the Executive Committee of the German Football Association (DFB)
  • “There has to be a U-turn. And it must be 360 degrees.” – Eduard Geyer, former football player in the GDR upper league and long-time coach at Energie Cottbus
  • “Each side has two medals” – Mario Basler, European football champion and “football philosopher”
  • “I’m a German record player” – Lothar Matthäus, Germany’s record national player with 150 appearances, also world champion and obviously music lover

These quotations make images run directly in my mind’s eye: Cards that are rolled on a table, but which do not roll. People who turn once around their own axis. Heads that bend over soup plates and search in vain for the salt in the soup. And a record player on which Michael Schanze sings “Olé España” or “Hauptsache Italien”.

Due to the absurdity of the statements, these pictures and quotations can probably only be inserted as a pep talk at the beginning of a presentation. As is well known, a good atmosphere, laughing together should promote togetherness. However, a direct motivating effect – if this exists at all in the course of extrinsic motivation and which I strongly doubt – will probably not occur.

The one-word metaphor

The shortest form of a metaphor is probably a synonym. For me synonyms are one-word metaphors. “Goalgetter” is one such one-word metaphor. It transfers a term from one world to another. A goalgetter is someone who regularly scores goals for a team. Many goals, important goals. If you hear a sentence like “Martin, you are our goalgetter”, you can probably easily imagine that Martin works in sales and is the person who lands contracts (one metaphor) or concludes contracts (another metaphor).

” Rock Star”, “Premier League” or “MVP” (for Most Valuable Player) are similar one-word metaphors. They easily trigger images in the minds of the addressees and often have positive effects. Who would not like to play in the Premier League and thus in the best league in the world? Who would not like to be a Rock Star and be celebrated like a hero? Or who would not see themselves as the most important ingredient for the success of an organisation?

Many people might find these brief descriptions positive. But what if the addressee of the message doesn’t know anything about football and has no idea who or what represents the Premier League? What if people have no desire for heroism, performances on the big stage and no interest in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll? Or someone associates a Minimum Viable Product with MVP and wonders what the sender of the message actually wants to say?

A sports metaphor as an example

Imagine you hear the following sentence during a football match: “The captain must now set a good example and strike a blow! It’s time to excecute more real tackles!” Anyone who thinks he knows something about football has heard this statement very often. It is usually needed when a team is behind and the commentator is thinking about what the inferior team could do to give the game a different direction. Probably somebody had criticised the players’ lack of body language during the half-time break. Of course, the team is standing too far away from the opponents, which means they will not get into the duels. Apart from the fact that in reality it would make much more sense to prevent the superior team from playing by delivering the first passes, which often leads to long pass openings and automatically to more duels, I would like to transport this statement into the corporate context.

What does “setting a good example” mean? Someone sets an example and you follow? The head of department works overtime, sends out e-mails at 22:00 pm in the evening and you do it too? What does it mean to “strike a blow”? Will discussions be interrupted or critical questions forbidden from now on? And what is meant by “tackle”? With the best will in the world I can’t think of any such thing in the buiness world!

Of course I could have chosen another sports metaphor as an example, perhaps

  • keeping the ball low.
  • play low, win high.
  • switch from defence to attack.
  • keep the box clean.
  • to notch up one’s performance.

Correct. And with all of them I could easily have expressed my doubts about the message and the motivating effect.

My problems with sports metaphors

In summary, I have five major problems with sports metaphors:

  • Often they simply do not fit the situation to which they are applied in the context of companies. If they do not fit, they cannot have the intended effects.
  • “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a beautiful saying. Unfortunately this is not always and everywhere positive. While a sliding tackle in football may not be nice, but it can be useful, I see the picture mainly as a result of accidents at work in companies. But I cannot recognise anything useful in this.
  • “Not everything that limps is a comparison” is a nice phrase for the example from the beginning with the 100-metre run and the rowing figure of eight. Combining sports in the form of metaphors, which per se have no connection whatsoever, never works properly. “Like a sprinter, we have to run the 100 metres in 10 seconds” as an image for a very fast hotline that is available to help a customer when the phone rings for the first time can work, but even then the customer is not at the finish line after 10 seconds and the comparison is limping.
  • However, sport or football has nothing in common with business activities. Companies do not train. Organisations do not play. They do not hire employees as a backup for other employees. There are no competitions that only last 90 minutes (yes, there are sales pitches, but I have never seen one where the sales manager changes three players after 70 minutes to bring a breath of fresh air (a metaphor) into the game). And there are no regeneration periods between working days, and fortunately, most employers do not have nutritional plans.

And my personal biggest problem with sports metaphors:

  • I imagine that I know quite a lot about football. Often slightly more than the person who uses the sports metaphor. Just because someone has been watching football matches for 30 years does not mean that they know much about football. Only very few people become experts by watching. Unfortunately, the use of images from sport often expresses an ignorance of the true context. Transferring this ignorance to other areas in the hope of, for example, communicating content more clearly or even motivating employees is therefore almost always doomed to failure.



Avoid the use of sports metaphors. Usually the images cannot be transferred to other situations and the desired effect or motivation is not achieved. Discussions about metaphors can also easily occur as soon as a colleague is in the audience who (supposedly) knows the sport better than you do. Such a discussion virtually counteracts the original intention of your sports metaphor.

But if you do decide to use it anyway, do so with care. Perhaps with a funny quote to get people in the mood for a meeting. Or perhaps with a one-word metaphor. The simpler the sports metaphor, the better. And maybe you can drive a ball or two into the net after all.


Notes (in German):

[1] Falsches Feedback im Job
[2] The Boat Race
[3] Lustige Fußball-Zitate

By the way, Michael Schenkel still plays football regularly today. He plays bad passes, he flippers balls and he scores penalties. He started as a centre forward, and ended his club career as a libero (yes, he is quite old). 😉

Michael Schenkel has published additional articles in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Requirement analysis, but remote

Requirement analysis, but remote

t2informatik Blog: The organisation rebel - after all, a good idea?

The organisation rebel – after all, a good idea?

t2informatik Blog: Learning to code in schools

Learning to code in schools

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​