The Budo of High Performance Sales Coaching

Table of Content

Real Madrid has them, Manchester City has them, Conor McGregor has them, Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Marieke ‘Wielemie’ Vervoort… as a matter of fact, all the teams and individuals that want to enhance their performance have coaches, and not only in sports. While performance coaching in business is also on the rise, it is still a far cry of the amount of coaching that is done in sports. In this article, I will show you how I coach sales people and entrepreneurs on high performance and what shaped me.

For me, it all started in a dojo in a small town, deep in Belgium.

The reality is that many people in business are not used to coaching, most people don’t understand what coaching can do for them, and they don’t know what high performance coaching is.  And we cannot blame them.  The big majority of people have only seen coaches at work when they see their favorite sports team or athlete at work, well, actually, they have only seen them at work during competitions or games, never during practice.  Most people think it is something exotic or fancy that doesn’t apply to their job.

And when they get in touch the first time with high performance coaching it can come then as a shock to some. 

High performance coaching is not a weekend coaching with a former top athlete, a sales training at work, reading a biography of Armstrong or Jobs, and no, not even reading the “Trillion Dollar Coach”.

Coaching is a constant process to improve your performance, to stretch your goals and reach further on a personal level, whether it is on a specific skill or a more holistic approach.

Back to the little town in Belgium.  When I was younger, and was a competing martial artist, I was training in one of the best karate clubs in Belgium.  Our coaches were the most humble and fun people, and I was training among European and national champions.  Imagine me, a typical 18-year old with long hair thinking he’s on top of the world, who decided he was going to ‘play karate’ because he was fascinated by kung fu movies 🙂

I immediately noticed the way all these champs were grounded, and listened attentively to the coaches and followed up on the instructions the coaches gave.  Karate is an extremely fast sport, and constant finetuning of the technique and moves is crucial to become, and stay, at the top. 

As a matter of fact, the weekend before I attended my first ever training, there had been national championships, and the 3 competing black belts had like 5 champion titles among them, i.e. they had won all the male titles.  After the congratulations, they went back to training, listen as always attentively to their coaches.  They were already looking forward to their next championship and how they could improve their skills even further.  Not much fuzz about the whole thing, they were focused on the process.

Those champions had the most respect for their coaches, and the toughness combined with genuine attention to make them better karatekas build those unique relationships you can have in life. 

Relationships built on trust. 

Training all those years there, formed me as a sales person and coach.  It helped me building my framework and principles from which I work, and I show you what those are further down the article.

When we go back to example of sports, we see that not everybody is looking for high performance.  Recreational sports are booming, and most people are perfectly happy playing their favorite game, whether its is soccer, volleyball, cycling or martial arts, while others are striving to compete and dramatically improve their performance and win titles in a competition. 

In the professional world, the reality is that you have people of both worlds on the same floor: you have the people that are happy with their recreational status, and people that aim to bring them and their team to the next level, to the top of their league.

And this is where it gets tricky.

Do you want you and your company to be dependent on people that are happy performing on a recreational level, or do you want top performers on the front line? 

Let’s be clear here. 

I am not at all talking about disengaged employees.  Building a high performance culture is crucial to rally your people behind your purpose and increase the engagement of employees.  This does indeed significantly increase the general performance of the organisation. 

I am talking about increasing the individual performance of the individuals by improving their skills and by bringing them to the next level. 

You cannot have a successful a high performance culture without a coaching for performance culture. 

You can compare it with a medieval king, rallying his peasants behind a holy cause.  They will be highly engaged, but will be no match for a well trained army that is also rallying behind their holy cause.

I am 100% convinced that sales people and entrepreneurs should be high performers and have the same high performance coaching as any other top athlete. 


Because they are at the frontline of their organization.  If they are not performing at their best, their organizations won’t last.  If you don’t maximise the return on customer facing time, then your company won’t cut it. 

For example, sales people are 8 hours a day at work, and let us say they see between 5 – 50 customers per week (the range is quite wide, since some field sales need ‘only’ 5 booked meetings, while inside sales reps touch a higher number of people). 

A high performance culture will make sure those meetings are actually booked and that the work is done, while high performance culture will aim to dramatically increase the output of that time, for example by increasing the conversion rate, increasing the ticket value, decreasing the sales cycle, increasing the amount of hot leads, …

In some organisations there is the feeling that: we’ll throw some sales training or coaching to the troops, and they will sell better, but they forget that feedback and implementation of that feedback are crucial components in coaching.

Imagine if Solari, Mourinho or Zidane would lead a team consisting of both recreational players and high achievers.  Not any 1 coach could build a worldclass team out of them. 

No, you need a team of high performers (that are focused on collaboration).

That said, I think all sales organisations should use Dr. Sepahs performance behaviour/value congruent matrix to hire people. 

Dr. Sepah, an Assistant Clinical Professor in UCSF Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry designed this matrix to visualise who we actually want in our organizations, and who we don’t want.  For this article, suffice to say is to focus on the top right quadrant, and hire the competent and outstanding nice guys (and gals).

So we have now established that the most important element in high performance coaching is actually the coachee 🙂

 And I share the opinion of Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at the University College London that resources are wasted on C and D players, since top employees are many times more valuable than the rest and the highest ROI will come from investing further and more in those employees.  And naturally, staying on the lookout for more nice and competent, or outstanding, people.

When we then decide to coach an individual for performance, we should take the following into account:

Where are you on your journey:

As the coachee, the one receiving the coaching, you need to know first of all where you are on your journey: what are your skills, what is your motivation exactly?

Where are you going?

Then naturally, you need to know what do you want to achieve? Regardless of the level you are now, you need to understand where do you want to be, or what do you want to achieve.  In sales coaching, it is often the organization that decides what the expectations are for your role.

Are you Self Aware?

You have advantages or disadvantages that are potential roadblocks or accelerators to potential success.  To give a quick example, I am 1.87m, which is potentially an advantage in karate.  However, my club mate was 1.68m, and the guy beat me, and several taller people, because he used his size to his advantage.  Taller people like me are almost unstoppable when we can use our reach and launch our attacks.  However, trained people that are smaller use a simple trick. I say simple, because it requires a lot of training lol, the trick is that they close the distance.  Taller fighters need distance to launch their attacks, and while more junior fighters might stand far from more experienced fighters, this is exactly where taller fighters excel.  Smaller and experienced fighters however, know this, and they will fight from a much shorter distance.  This means we cannot launch our attacks, they are within their reach to attack, and we have less of a reaction time to move out of his attack.  That way, it puts the taller people in a disadvantage, resulting in wins for the smaller people.  What I want to say is, we would need to understand, and recognize our advantages as well as our  features that might make us, at first, put us at a disadvantage.  Looking from a sales point-of-view, being a junior person but with a very open personality might be a disadvantage, at first, however open people are easy to engage with, which then again becomes an advantage.  Similarly, hiring senior people from other sectors might lead to a sector disadvantage, but they will have loads of experience in how to deal with customers. 

Can you do it?

This is the big divide.  The easiest I can compare it with is: are you a fish that wants to fly?  Oh yes, you will exclaim, there is flying fish! 

We are talking about high performance, we are talking about spending hours in the air, not gliding a couple of seconds a few meters over the water.  In my case, I loved playing volleyball as a teen.  The reality is, I would never be able to be a top performer due to my height: the people who played in the top classes on my position were 2m tall and more (2.23m was the tallest in the Belgian competition at that time).  So while I love to play volleyball on the beach, I would not make it as a top performer and found karate where I could develop my drive into competing at the national levels. 

Do you have the drive to do it?

High performance takes a lot of work, and not everybody is willing to do the extra effort it takes to go to the next level of performance. 

And finally:

Is your environment stimulating you to getting there?

Do you have the support from people, friends, family, trainers and coaches and tools to get you where you want.

All these elements interact with each other and will define how you will become a high performer.  For example,  if you don’t live in a neighborhood that supports your goals, do you have the drive to change this?  Would you move?  Would you travel 1 hour to go to train with the right coach?

The 10 principles in my framework:

In order to structure all these elements as a coach, I use the following framework and set of principles: 

Always go back to the basics

You should always have the basics in mind: consciously doing why you are doing certain things, and stay conscious of what is the desired outcome. 

When people train, they learn the skills necessary to be successful and perform better.  However, when people master a certain skill, there is a tendency to start to experiment with it, and lose efficiency with your skill.  In karate, the use of hips, the stance of shoulders and feet, all need to be well aligned to give the most efficient punch, kick or block. 

In sales, we see often in sales coaching that people, once they know a methodology thoroughly, it becomes a routine and they start to cut corners.  As a result, they lose focus and their performance plateaus and then, because they cut all these corners, they start to lose performance.

I have seen it many times happening: people with a higher closing average start to prospect less and suddenly start missing quarters, people that don’t document their sales conversations and then lose focus on key customers, …

Do the right things right

There is a Miyagi in every martial arts coach. 

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that every training we gave hundreds of punches, hundreds of kicks, and hundreds of blocks.  In all different combinations, stances, as an attacker or defender.  We practiced per series of 100 kicks, punches or moves, not per 5 or 10, what I see these days in modern martial art schools. 

For us it was normal, it was a game to see and understand what you needed to change in your stance to increase the speed of your kick of punch, or moving around. 

In sales, we mainly talk about building a systematic approach to sales.  Treating every project as a unique project, but while managing them through a same methodological approach.  

Constantly Get Feedback and Implement

You can kick or punch 100s of times, but without feedback and implementation of the feedback you will get nowhere. 

For example, I started gaining weight during a lull in my training, and yes, I admit, the weight focused around the navel 🙂 and because of this, I became slower.  I didn’t notice I started to compensate this with my shoulders.  Moving my shoulders actually alerted my opponents and they had time to move away.  And when I failed to hit the opponents, I got frustrated of course. I couldn’t understand why they saw my attacks. 

Thanks to my coaches they saw what was wrong, and I started working on getting my coordination back to where it should be.  I was so used in compensating my shoulder, that the correct move initially felt unnatural.  So I practiced and practiced until it was my second nature again to hit in the right way. 

In sales, shadowing people during sales conversations gives you a lot of insight in where they good at, and what are the little tweaks you can make to gain drastically improved results. 

And yes, in the end the biggest changes don’t come from big shifts, but from small incremental improvements. 

This is one of the reasons coaching should be constant.  You get feedback, you implement the feedback, you improve a bit, then you get once more feedback, you improve a bit and soon you will be a realy high performer.

Implement and persevere

Building on the previous principle: when you implement the coaching input, it feels unnatural at first, since it is against your ‘natural habits’, and only perseverance can bring you to the level you need, and you want, to be.

Be ready to unlearn

Looking at learning skills, you see that part is also unlearning skills, or ‘natural habits’.  Sometimes those particular skills or habits were perfect previously, but in a new setting, those habits can be damaging.  For example, you might have worked as the number one customer support associate, and your people skills will be tremendously useful in a sales role, however your habits to go deep into technicalities, into details will prevent you from  identifying how your solutions can help your customers.  Unlearning your routines to go into the project and focusing on the bigger picture will be crucial for you to become a better salesperson.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


The caps and exclamation marks are intentional.  Creating a safe environment is so crucial! 

People can only develop in an environment that gives them a chance to develop into the direction they want to develop.  This means creating an environment where failing is ok, where it is safe to test, to fall and get back up again. 

In karate, when you start you know less than nothing (and when you become a black belt you realize you know nothing).  You will fail literally thousands of times before you will start making progress in stances, kicks and punches.  The amazing thing in karate is, that it is a lifelong journey.  And enjoying that journey is key in becoming an accomplished martial artist.  Imagine if you started karate, and every time you trained with the others, they hit you hard and acted like you knew karate.  You wouldn’t learn, and you wouldn’t go back to that club right?  You get the chance to develop and learn the ropes, coached up from level to level.  You can fail, you get feedback, your mates help you, help you back up when you fall, give you encouragement, and coach you. 

The salesfloor should be like a dojo.  You hear the sales conversations of others, people coach you and give feedback on what works and what can go better, and there are several formal moments to practice intensely certain skills, so you can improve your performance.

Put in the effort

If you want to be a high performer, you need to be willing to put in the effort: also known as drive, or self initiative: for me this is a non-negotiable, and would like to refer to the matrix of Dr. Sepah again.

You can only work with the people that are willing to do the effort.  Coaches can only show the way, but it is up to you how you will take up the information, how you will train, how much you will practice. 

Demonstrate how hard you actually want it.  When I interview and coach people, and hear them saying they want to become better salespeople, I ask them what was the last salesbook they read and what they learned from it (or what was the last sales podcast they listened to).  The number of people that can’t answer that follow up question is strikingly low.  How can you require time from your coaches if you are not willing in to put the effort to get better? 

You will be stretched

There is no growth if you are not stretched. In karate, you can this quite literally when you stretch to increase your reach, agility and explosivity, but also in training harder, training with people that are far above your level, or with people that fight in a style you have a weakness against.  Coaching is exactly moving to the point beyond your current performance, and it will be uncomfortable at first.  It is important to remember we have that safe environment, we can and will fail and that it is okay.  The coach plays a crucial role here, by constantly checking how far we can stretch an individual.

Work with an Outcome in mind

When you set goals, you should set realistic expectations.

Tony Robbins famously said,

“Most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in two or three decades.”

When you start the journey, be clear at the outcome, create a plan on how to get there, and then work on it. 

You know you will be stretched, you will feel uncomfortable and the initial progress will be tiny. 

This is why it is so important to persevere, as in the beginning you won’t make the progress you want to make, but after a while all these tiny changes will dramatically improve your performance (and no, it won’t take you 2-3 decades).

Be Empathic, not emotional. 

In giving feedback, I am convinced that being direct and transparent, in a safe environment (!), is the best way for growth.  That said, being direct should never be damaging. 

When people know that the feedback is meant to make them grow, they know they get the chance to show what they can do when they go all in.  They know how far they can stretch, and they can see for themselves what results this brings for them.  In sales I see people closing deals at the first trial close, I see people doubling their average ticket size!

Constantly, refine, practice, look at where you are, and refine again. Coaching is a continuous process.  Does it mean you need to work for the rest of your career with the same coach?  Absolutely not.  Every coach has strengths and blind spots, the key is to work with the coach you need at that moment, to bring you where they can bring you on your journey.  I know of a Belgian top karateka, who trained with Spanish coaches to finetune some of the basic karate moves, and then later trained with Belgian and English coaches for other aspects of karate.  Each coach will enrich your experience and skill set.

Good luck in your journey, and I hope you enjoyed reading the article!

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