November 13, 2023

Author of “Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You About How to Win in Life”

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #118

On this episode of the Bring It In podcast, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder, Sam Caucci, sat down with Jonathan Fader, author of  Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life.  Dr. Jonathan Fader has over 20 years of experience in performance coaching. Fader emphasizes the importance of purposeful practice that develops us to succeed in any field.

In addition, Fader touches on creating a positive work environment, the significance of internal motivation, and effective feedback. The author also suggests that organizations should prioritize people over roles and foster more empathy for their employees in order to create a space for meaningful communication. 

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify.


Below are some of the insights Jonathan shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Organizations have a responsibility to develop better people.”
  • “The biggest shift in motivational interviewing is getting better at listening to people to understand them.”
  •  “Knowing the people, not just knowing the process is essential.”

Sam Caucci: Why did you write that book at this moment? 

Jonathan Fader: Well, I think you know, the first thing I would say, Sam, is how it happened. I had written a previous book called coaching called life as sport and life of sport is all about how you can take the techniques of sport and performance psychology and apply them to other areas in life.

I found that working with athletes, I had realized that all the things we do with athletes to help them be at their best mentally, like self talk, meditation, and mindfulness, imagery, gratitude, developing an excellent mental performance routine. That those things were really applicable to the work I was doing coaching executives and coaching people, in other areas of life, in parenting, in everything.

And, you know, when I look back on my training, I had a lot of training in this technique called ‘motivational interviewing’. And, you know, I reached out to someone I knew at that point as a colleague, who had came up with this idea of ‘motivational interviewing’ Steve Rolnick. 

And he said well, you know, it’s really interesting. I’ve always wanted to take this technique of motivational interviewing into sports. And so we began to really think about what is this long standing, scientifically validated way of communicating that’s been around in research, in medicine, that’s been around in other areas of life.

What does that look like? What does motivational interviewing this, this evidence based technique look like in sport and performance?

Sam: How would you define ‘motivational interviewing’ for people who don’t know? 

Jonathan: So ‘motivational interviewing’, I would define it as a strategy. A way of being in communicating with other people to help people, resolve their ambivalence about change. It’s an evidence-based way of connecting with people and improving your own ability to empathize with them to get to be a better communicator about empathy.

But also to help people refine and articulate their personal motivators, what we say these days, their why for change. It’s a method for honing in on what makes people tick and help them articulate their own motivations that usually lead to a better performance outcome. 

Sam: When I first picked up the book and I read it, it was one of those books that– I can read pretty fast Jonathan, but this, you had to wrestle with this book in a good way.

I felt at times as I was going through it, almost like, everything I knew about the English language–, I don’t know how to express it. But I feel like I lost the ability to speak as a manager in some moments because I was really trying to think about how to apply it. And it’s tough stuff!

Jonathan: I think it’s one of those things where, you know, it’s  really tough in the sense of when you first start to think like this, it’s kind of like, you know, driving a stick shift car, right? You’re used to going on automatic. And then all of a sudden you’re  like, oh, I’m driving stick. Now I really have to think about things, but it becomes natural.

And I would say that the real simplified way to think about this is typically there’s two ways to listen to people, Sam. Where you can listen for the purpose of replying, or we can listen to really understand them. And the biggest shift in motivational interviewing is getting better at listening to people to understand them.

And that’s a big shift, right? To change your kind of mindset as you’re listening to your employee, as you’re listening to the person on your team. We typically listen and we’re thinking, okay, now this is what I’ll tell them or how I’ll respond to what they’re saying. Rather than deeply understanding, okay, this is what’s going on for this person.

This is what they’re trying to tell me. And so I think, yeah, there’s, there’s a lot of techniques and, you know, shifts and as you said, complex ways to use language, but it’s very basic level. You know, it’s really getting better at a deep understanding and a deep listening, which is really challenging.

You know, we really, we have very little practice at that. We’re much more practiced at just sharing our knowledge and, you know, responding or feuding, trying to persuade people. 

Sam: Has it gotten harder over the last decade or so? Is it getting harder to teach motivational interviewing given how connected people are? And, you know, multitasking is something that is attempted by many on an ongoing basis. People are on zoom, but they’re doing nine different things at the same time. Is it getting harder to teach this to managers and leaders? 

Jonathan: I think that, you know, technology makes it more difficult. And there’s much more distractions. But I think the biggest distraction is the one that’s within us. The biggest distraction is that we don’t practice, you know, our ability to recognize that we have a certain desire for people to change. 

So I think that one of the things that we talk about in the book is this idea that everybody has a writing reflex. That we have this desire to write what’s wrong. So, you know, humans have a negative bias. And when we’re looking with someone on our team, some of our employees, we’re always going to see what they’re doing wrong.

Right? And when I look at performance reviews of CEOs I coach or of an athlete, you know, it’s very much based on a weakness profile. It’s based on what’s wrong with the person. Our minds work evolutionarily to notice what’s wrong. And so I would say yes, technology is a barrier or an obstacle.

But I think Sam, the biggest obstacle is our own tendency to want to correct. We all know this. If you’re a parent, you know this. Like, it’s much easier to see what our kids are doing that isn’t right than what our kids are doing that is right. And so I think that’s the biggest challenge to really being in an effective communication style with people on our team, is to see them in their best light.

Now, that’s not to say that you’re not gonna point out or give feedback to things that aren’t working well. But just starting from the standpoint of saying, all right, I’m going to think about what I can–, you know, what is going on that’s working well here, I think is a profound shift in the communication style that excellent coaches and excellent leaders really do more often. 

Sam: You know, today it said that the average– we’re on to Gen Alpha now, so.

Jonathan: Sounds like we’re going to like a new planet, you know? 

Sam: Starting all over again. 

Jonathan: Yeah, exactly. 

Sam: So as a millennial, I’m happy because we’re totally done complaining about my generation, and Gen Z is sort of in the crosshairs. But Gen Alpha, they say, could carry up ends of 36 jobs in a lifetime.

Obviously a lot different than if you are parents. My mom had, you know, two jobs in a lifetime. So, my question to you is, as people in work are going to have to be great learners of new skills and this aspect of upskilling and reskilling and upskilling and reskilling, which is not that different than athletes that, you know, in the sports world, constantly developing and getting better.

But in the workforce as workers are continuously learning new skills and upskilling and reskilling and moving so quickly. I think about in the book you talk about the aspect of giving feedback. And coaches and managers that are responsible for that aspect of feedback to help people understand where they’re at, where they can go.

I guess, when you think about workforce development, and especially in your travels working in CEOs, where do you feel, even maybe beyond giving feedback, ‘motivational interviewing’ can play the biggest role in helping organizations build high performing workforces?

Jonathan: Well, I think you hit it. I mean, I think one of the biggest areas is what we call feedback. However, I think that feedback has lost its true purpose and meaning. I mean, it’s funny when you think about the word feedback. I speak Spanish. And so in Spanish, the word for feedback is retroalimentación, which if you think about it, it’s like actually giving people back nourishment.

And if you think about feedback, right, it’s like you’re giving people food back right. Now when, but if I say feedback, if I’m like, hey, I’m going to give you some feedback, what the person hears in our world is I’m about to criticize you. I’m about to tell you what you’re not doing well. I’m about to tell you all your flaws, so just brace for this because this is going to be a really humbling and terrible experience.

And so what MI does to that conversation, I think it brings it back to its true meaning. If you’re really giving good feedback, you’re helping someone to realize the areas of strength they have and the missed opportunities that if they just shifted in a particular way. And so motivational interviewing, I think is a way to get back to true feedback.

In my view, the best kind of feedback is you know, that is feedback in which you help the person to show themselves what they need to do to change. Right. And the science supports me here. You know, if I say to you, Hey, Sam, you know what, I think you should change the podcast in this kind of way.

You should have me on every week. You’re going to say, this guy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But if I get from you what you need to do, to change your podcast, to make it the best podcast ever, then that’s much more powerful. And so in the book, as you know we talk about it in three different styles, most managers, most coaches.

They rely on one style, which we call ‘fixing’. ‘Fixing’ is explaining to people what they need to do. And so in traditional feedback, we say, Hey, I just want to point out this and that other thing, that’s fine. But there are two other very powerful styles of communicating that coaches and CEOs can use.

One is called ‘following’, which is deep, profound listening, which is a skill that in my experience, coaching, even the best, you know, most, formidable and powerful CEOs, people really lack some core skills there, the ability to listen actively, to reflect back what you’re saying. And then, you know, the other one that’s really central and to the point of feedback is called ‘guiding,’ right?

So asking people powerful questions, right? So when you retire, when you hang it up, what do you want to be remembered for? You know, I’m curious, what, what do you see are areas that, you know, You feel you can perform if we asked your team. What would your team say? What’s at stake for you if you don’t make a change in this part–, how do you see things going if you were to continue kind of making the choices you are, or if you changed, you know.

That learning ways of guiding people in these conversations and practicing this guiding style is profound in feedback. Because, as I was saying, my experience, is that the best powerful feedback is when someone names for themself out loud what they need to do in order to change rather than have someone else name it for them.

Sam: You brought up science a few minutes ago. I’m sure you have conversations with coaches and athletes and skeptics, CEOs. What do you reference when you’re trying to communicate that MI works and that this approach is effective and should be adopted and you should put as much work behind it as you need to?

Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, I think there are definitely, as you said, skeptics out there. The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow said, you know, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. And, you know, I think many of us are just so used to one style of doing things that, you know, it seems to work because it’s just the only thing we know how to do.

I’d say the most powerful data or science behind this is the data that shows Sam the single biggest predictor of whether people change is how much they talk about reasons or needs for change rather than if their coach or therapist or, you know, in this case, their boss or their supervisor tells them to change.

So just the simple fact of knowing that the biggest predictor of changes the amount of words spoken by the person in favor of change. So I think that whatever technique you use that as the kind of, you know, real true north of the conversation is pretty powerful. My role is to help this person articulate, say out loud to me the reasons that they should change and how. The other thing I think about this is like what I say to people all the time who are skeptics is like what’s the alternative, like, you know, I mean, if you’re trying if you’re telling someone they can’t that this is what they need to do and they’re not doing it’s it’s clear that another approach is warranted.

Sam: I looked at this immediately as a framework that organizations could use when they develop managers, as they think about how they– we use a restaurant example. you know, if you are taking a server who is your best server and you are promoting them into a role where they’re responsible for more, maybe they’re managing your location or store. Arming them with a, with a framework or a toolkit that they can operate from in order to, you know, again, motivate, set goals, give feedback.

That was what was running through my mind as I read the book. I mean, is that fair? Is that fair? Is that, do you feel like this works really well in a workforce setting? Cause obviously the book talks about sports and athletes is like the central focus. 

Jonathan: I absolutely do. In fact, I think that’s like the idyllic future world, right? Is a world where, you know, everybody gets training on this. And while this book was written for sports I have to say that, you know, in my own professional career as a executive coach and a coach of a performance coach, um, this is something that I train, um, many leaders on, um, are the core skills and motivational interviewing because the core skills and motivational interviewing.

I often say that that empathy is the price of admission to a conversation, whatever, you know, whatever you’re trying to convey, whatever change you’re trying to make, people are just going to be more tuned in if they really feel that you understand them and their perspective and all the research on,  leadership says there’s kind of two kinds of leaders, transactional leaders and transformational leaders, right?

And so a transactional leader is one that’s just like, This is what has to get done. This is your job. And you know, as you know, a transformational leader is one that actually knows who he’s talking to, or she’s talking to, they know, okay, these are the people, this is the person I know, Sam, and I know what Sam’s doing.

One of the things I like about the 1Huddle website is, you know, if you scroll over everybody on 1Huddle  in terms of their profile, it shows a personal side to them, right? So, you know, some people have like a baseball bat, some people have a, you know, a New York Giants, Football. Those people we know are the best employees just saying.

And so, you know, it’s a level of as a leader being able to know, like, this is who these people are. Right. And then the day everybody just wants to be part of something they want to belong and everybody wants to feel that they are, you know, manifesting their, their highest ability, they want to make an impact and in a workforce those are the two things that as a leader, we have to address. 

So, you know, getting back to this idea of transformational leadership, what motivational interviewing does is it gives you a method. It gives you a roadmap to be a better transformational leader. You could just say, I want to be a transformational leader, or you could say.

Well, what are the skills that are going to help me? And certainly listening really well, asking great questions, empathizing are really the hallmarks of being a great leader. So yeah, I would agree. I think this is something for that restaurant manager. It’s something for you and me leading teams. It’s something for anyone who’s interacting in a workplace.

We’re, you know, as in every team, you know, knowing the people, not just knowing the process is essential. 

Sam: It’s all great resignation, quiet quitting. I don’t know what the next one’s going to be. Boss loss was one. You know, the other thing, I’m interested in your–, I don’t know if you get this question at all, but since, you know, so much of the conversation and, you know, your work is focused on teaching coaches, teaching leaders to communicate this way.

You know, today in America, 1 in 2 workers are a four hundred dollar parking ticket away from poverty. 80 percent are in the service sector. We’re living at a time where for three decades wage growth has not gone up. It seems that more and more people who are paid the least, pay the most inside of communities. What if you were speaking to the frontline worker who maybe is a back of house or person who is trying to elevate themselves up in the workforce how can they use the tools and techniques for motivational interviewing to affect their colleagues, their organization, maybe their own professional and personal growth? 

Jonathan: I mean, it’s a profound question in the sense that I think you’re speaking to really systemic problems in our world, in our economy. I think in two ways, one, what ‘motivational interviewing’ really points to is the power of internal motivation and having worked in various times in my career with people that were struggling, I can say that those, those people who were able to pull through and overcome the kind of obstacles you’re talking about, are the ones that were more aware of and with their own life made more present what their internal values are. And so I think there is a part of this that is about communicating, but there’s also like a individual part of motivational interviewing, which is to say, if you’re really struggling with  what helps people to stay motivated and connected is having a real sense of why they’re doing something, you know.

You know, I think it was Gertrude said he “who has a why can bear any almost anyhow.” And so what I’ve seen with athletes who were, you know, struggling to make it or people who were struggling to make it, you know, check to check or those people that had a clear, defined sense of why they were doing things and what their personal values were, were able to really overcome those obstacles with greater regularity.

The other thing I would say is, you know, like, it doesn’t matter where you are on a team. This is important for leaders, but it’s also important for the person who is, you know, say really layered and has a lot of people above them in an organization. The people that are–, if you think about who gets promoted, right, and who makes it through an organization, there’s certainly, I would say, a fundamental aspect of that, that’s like, what is your talent, what is your ability, what are your raw abilities to contribute, right?

So like, as a baseball player, do you have the skills to, are your five tools good as a football player? What’s your speed, all these things as a corporate athlete, if you will. You know, what’s your ability to assess, make good decisions, have good strategy and, you know, good technical ability that said so many choices and forward migration in and success in these different industries has to do with personal relationships has to do with connection.

I don’t mean like, you know, Oh, you know, you know, someone, I’m just talking about just having a deeper relationship with people. And so I think when you’re someone who’s trying to, you know, overcome barriers to make it through a system, you know, focusing on deepening your relationships is just really good insurance for being able to maximize your opportunities. 

Sam: John, we’re talking about the future of work. I have one more question for you. What’s your hope for the future of work? 

Jonathan: I think my hope for the future of work is that the work that we are doing in high performing organizations, seeps into all kinds of organizations.

In the elite firefighting and military and sports, settings I’ve worked in, there’s been more and more emphasis on human factors, right? So, you know, the idea of like, you don’t have to be sick to get better, right? That even, you know, groups that have are really traditional, military settings, the Navy SEALs, the New York City Fire Department, you know, elite sports settings have started to really focus on the third dimension of mental fitness and conditioning. 

And so my hope is that, you know, every organization begins to think about really practical ways that they can train their workforce on mental fitness. And so that that could look like, you know, what we’re going to train everybody on motivational interviewing to improve the way people communicate.

It could look like we’re going to do mindfulness as part of our group. We’re going to, you know, get a, like 1Huddle does have a pool table in the middle of the conference room. But like, just really think about, all right, we’re going to address the human aspect of this. And so I think that that’s happening to some extent, but, you know, I think it used to be looked at as like an add on.

Oh, okay. We’re going to pay attention to this, but that’s sort of just like a perk versus the main line, this is the gas. If humans are happy, then the employees are happy. And as we say in our book, coaching athletes to be their best, it’s human first athlete second, and so it’s really human first manager, second human first leader, second.

And so my hope is that there’s more focus on developing human mental and physical health as part of the workplace and not just something that’s a sideline, you know, kind of side dish. 

Sam: Jonathan, I really appreciate you taking the time to share. 

Jonathan: My pleasure. It’s really, hey, Sam, the questions you ask are so central to what it means to being a productive, happy person in a work environment.

And I love this podcast and love what you’re doing. 

Sam: Thank you.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Leadership, Workforce, Learning, Coaching, Failure, Struggle

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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