ATD Blog

What If You Trained Your Sales Team Like Professional Athletes?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

SE Athletes
What separates elite performers in athletics, medicine, and the military from the rest of the field? Are some people born with a certain “it” factor that gives them a competitive advantage over their peers?

These are questions that researchers have sought to answer for decades. Of course, there is no silver bullet when it comes to mastering a specific skill or practice. For some, winning the genetic lottery has given them everything they need to run faster, jump higher, or react more quickly than their competitors. Others have devoted their entire lives to a rigorous program of training and practice to make the most of their abilities.

In truth, the recipe for achieving top performance is a combination of natural ability and deliberate practice. However, there is one common approach shared among the most elite performers in a variety of disciplines. 

Difference Between Exceptional and Average Performance 

From highly trained military operators to top-ranked athletes to world-class surgeons, high performers of all types share one common trait: situational adaptability. They observe a variety of data points, rapidly synthesize that information into recognizable patterns, and execute the correct response, given the situation they are facing.


In professional sports, this behavior unfolds when a quarterback changes the play at the line of scrimmage after intuiting what strategy the defense is most likely to deploy. In the operating room, surgeons use a combination of direct observation (for example, hemorrhaging) and data analysis (for example, dropping blood pressure) to make life and death decisions in the blink of an eye.

The power of situational adaptability comes from executing the right actions in the right scenario. If a military unit conducted the exact same mission, regardless of the time, terrain, or enemy activity, how do you think that would work out? If a football team ran the exact same play every time they came out of the huddle, how many games do you think they would win?


Taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to selling is just as misguided. Regardless of whether you ascribe to SPIN, Challenger, or any other sales methodology, approaching every customer interaction with the same strategy is a recipe for disaster. The diversity of factors at play in different selling scenarios simply means you’re going to lose more often than you win. This is important because it runs counter to popular opinion around how to roll out a new sales methodology and is often a root cause of ineffective field adoption.  

Applying Situational Adaptability in Your Organization 

Here’s the good news: your best salespeople already use well-honed situational awareness to adapt their selling behaviors. These reps quickly assess their selling scenario and adjust to changing customer factors, often in a completely unconscious manner. The real challenge facing sales leaders and sales enablement professionals is scaling this situational adaptability across the entire sales organization. To move from an individual to an organizational capability, companies must:

  • Identify the most common selling scenarios. The first step is mapping the most common situations your salespeople face. What are the important factors that salespeople can look for to determine if they are facing “Situation A” versus “Situation C”? These factors are often multifaceted and latent, so be wary of focusing on simple, surface characteristics.
  • Build your adaptive playbook. From there, focus on analyzing the unique messages and tactics that your highest-performing reps use in each situation. Combine workshops and interviews with data analysis to gain real insight into winning actions. Scale these behaviors by documenting the strategies into adaptive playbooks that align to the diversity of selling situations. This intelligence becomes the baseline for broader training and reinforcement.
  • Activate and reinforce situational adaptability. Even top surgeons, athletes, and soldiers continue to devote time to practicing their craft. After you have identified common situations and mapped effective strategies for each scenario, inspire your reps to internalize the unique observational factors and winning tactics. Ideally, this is done in real-world selling contexts, where managers can provide feedback on how to continuously refine their execution.

The process of scaling situational adaptability across your entire sales team isn’t easy, but it is extremely effective and leads to broader process adoption. Elite performers use their mastery of situational adaptability to win more championships, complete critical missions, and save lives. Similarly, you can win in your market by building situational adaptability as a sustained organizational capability.

Want to learn more? Join me July 11 for the ATD webcast: The Game Plan for Solving Sales Methodology Adoption.

About the Author

Ralph is a partner with The Brevet Group, and for 20 years he has led sales performance teams in the United States and Asia. Recently he also served as a sales leader in both the media and technology industries. Ralph’s work has focused on a unique blend of management consulting and sales enablement to help companies execute their sales strategies. Prior to this role, Ralph was the APAC sales effectiveness leader at Mercer.

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