What Can Entrepreneurs Learn from Athletes?
It’s a common practice in business circles – using sports analogies to explain and describe office procedures. Managers are referred to as ‘Coaches’; committees are ‘teams’ and staff meetings are ‘huddles’. Is there more to this behavior than just a catchy tagline? Are there lessons entrepreneurs can take from athletes that will enhance their business?
What if there were valuable lessons that could be found on the sidelines of your favorite sport? What if, instead of simply watching a game, you were picking up tricks and tools that could help you grow your business? What if the Monday morning water cooler conversation about Sunday’s game was important – because it could provide insight into successful business practices?
This article will explore some of the lessons that entrepreneurs can take away from their favorite sport athletes which help them to stay at the top of their game.
We’ll look at 1) how to focus on skills, 2) their drive for success, 3) sacrifice now for reward later, 4) attention to details, 5) celebrate accomplishments, 6) failure isn’t fatal, 7) victory has class, and 8) winners on and off the field.
By exploring how successful athletes compete (and win), entrepreneurs can improve their own business practices, encourage their employees and put a mark in the win column.
HOW TO FOCUS ON SKILLS
Very few athletes perform at the top of their game in more than one sport. While a few players have made an attempt (remember when Michael Jordan tried to play baseball?), generally speaking athletes excel in one sport. The athlete who is talented on the soccer field, for example, will not excel on the basketball court. The skill set is different, the training is different, and the athlete will focus their attention on the sport that they can excel in.
The athlete who is determined to be a success will evaluate their performance, and focus on the skills that set them apart from the other athletes. Many players have a ‘signature move’ – the one move that they have perfected and can execute with success in game play. Those signature moves did not happen overnight – they are the result of years of repeated drills and practice. By focusing on the skills they excel in, the athlete can bring their best to the game.
Entrepreneurs have specific skillsets that they excel in as well. Honing those skills through practice and training is essential to success. The entrepreneur who is a master at making presentations should leave the daily office paperwork to someone else. The personable, likeable entrepreneur should handle staffing, while leaving the marketing plan to others. Each entrepreneur must discover the skills that they have, and then work to use them as an asset within the company. Similarly, the entrepreneur must realize that they cannot do everything and be willing to allow others who have different skills to handle tasks they are more suited for.
Jordan’s Mental Preparation
DRIVE FOR SUCCESS
The 1968 Olympic track finals provided one of the most memorable moments in running history. John Akhwari, Tanzanian marathon runner, was hurt during his race, dislocating his knee and damaging his shoulder. He persevered, however, and continued to run. Fifty-six runners completed the course, the medal ceremony had been completed, when journalists realized there was another contestant headed towards the finish line. Over an hour after the winner finished the course, Akhwari stumbled across the line. When asked later why he continued to run, even though he knew he would not win, Akhwari replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Akhwari had invested in his sport for the duration. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding his event, he was determined to finish what he started. Anyone who wishes to be an athlete at the top of their game must invest for the long haul.
Entrepreneurs who are not prepared to invest their life into making their business a success have little chance of succeeding.
Watching athletes warm up for their games can be entertaining on several levels. One of the most interesting moments to watch is when a player closes their eyes and goes through the motions of their activity. The diver repeatedly lifts on their toes; the skier bobs and weaves in place, the punter kicks high in the air. The athlete isn’t delusional, they are visualizing the game. Envisioning the activity is a tool that helps athletes prepare to perform, and helps develop memory related responses so that their body automatically moves the way it should. Oftentimes, the athlete envisions themselves winning the game, holding the trophy or in the victor’s circle. They have a goal: to win. To achieve their goal, they train with the intent to win. An athlete doesn’t spend hours training to come in second place – they play to win, so they train to win. Even in situations where they will not win, they are looking for improvement: a faster time, a higher jump, a better score.
Entrepreneurs must remember that to win, they must prepare for it. Envisioning success – using positive thinking – is an excellent method of getting ready to win. Establishing habits and processes to facilitate a win is essential. Perhaps more important than any other element, however, is the understanding that there can only be one winner. The entrepreneur must be prepared to play to win.
The Mental Toughness Secret of Olympic Athletes
SACRIFICE NOW FOR REWARD LATER
If there was one word to sum up an athlete’s life, it would be sacrifice. Perhaps more than any other characteristic, an athlete understands the importance of sacrificing today for the reward down the road. The idea of sacrifice can be seen in the daily life of an athlete who spends vacation time training instead of heading to the beach, the one who forgoes their favorite ice cream dessert because they are days away from a competition, the one who spends holidays with their team at a game, instead of their family.
The entrepreneur who wishes to be successful must learn to embrace the art of sacrifice. It means working late (and coming in early) so that the presentation can be completed on time. It may mean giving up the new car/house/vacation because every last penny has been invested in the company. The means of sacrifice may be different for every entrepreneur, but the reality is that there will be sacrifice. It is part of the price one pays to engage at this level. If the entrepreneur is not willing to sacrifice, they are probably in the wrong business.
Along with the daily sacrifices that athletes make simply to be able to compete, there are sacrifices within sports that the athlete must be willing to be part of. In baseball, this sacrifice is seen in a bunt. By bunting, the batter advances the runner into scoring position, gives the team the chance to earn runs. On the hockey rink, the sacrifice can be seen when the puck is passed from the top-scorer to another player who has a better shot at the net. These sacrifices are game-changers. They have the potential to completely change the direction of a game, and are essential for any team that wants to win.
As an entrepreneur, this form of sacrifice can be demonstrated as well. Sharing the credit with others who have helped accomplish a goal, giving the spotlight to team members; finding ways that everyone can share in success is a form of sacrifice that the successful entrepreneur will master. Sacrificing at the office is a game-changer, as well. The entrepreneur who sacrifices for the benefit of the team understands that in the long run, if the team wins, everyone wins.
Sports Metaphors and Entrepreneurship with David Gardner
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
A well trained athlete can be obsessive about details. Often, they can relate exactly how many calories they’ve eaten in a day, how many minutes they worked out, how far they ran and what their best time was. Athletes are extremely detail-oriented people.
The athlete who is serious about their sport understands that fitness is essential to performance. These athletes are the ones who faithfully run their daily five miles – even in the rain. They get up early to go to the gym and work out on weekends. Not only do these athletes own every imaginable type of workout equipment, they actually use them.
Maintaining a high level of fitness will keep the athlete in shape, but training is what allows the player to succeed in their sport. The training schedule for serious athletes is rigorous. Drills and skills are repeated over and over, until they become second nature. They study play books, learn signs, memorize courses and watch training videos repeatedly. As part of their training, the athlete studies the competition; memorizing methods and techniques and then prepares a defense based on their style. Training is intense, hard work that happens every day during the sports season.
In addition to their fitness and training, athletes are fastidious about nutrition. The competitive-level athlete by-passes sodas for water, says no to an extra helping of dinner and generally skips dessert. They are conscientious about quantity and quality – every calorie counts and the athlete monitors calories carefully.
Athletes pay such close attention to these details because they understand that the little details are what can make or break their sports career. Entrepreneurs must pay close attention to details as well if they are to be successful. To begin with, the entrepreneur must pay attention to their personal fitness level. Maintaining a regular exercise plan will help one feel better, as well as help ensure that they stay healthy.
Similarly, the fitness of the company must be evaluated. Is the company in a position to endure for the long-haul? Are the positions within the company filled by employees who are best suited for the job? Is the company well-rounded and able to handle the demands of daily business?
The entrepreneur certainly should be cautious about their personal nutrition, but equally as important is the nutrition of the company. Are they being given the tools they need to succeed? Does the company offer opportunities to advance and grow in business knowledge?
When a baseball player hits a homerun, by the time he crosses home plate his entire team is standing on the field to cheer him home. They give hi-fives, hug and jump up and down in a demonstrative celebration of one player’s success. That scene is repeated at football games, basketball games, soccer matches, and a variety of other team sports. It can be seen in the golfer who raises a club overhead after sinking a difficult shot, the tennis player who returns a serve for a point and the gymnast who runs off the mat to hug teammates. The message from these athletes is clear: celebrate success.
While not all employees would appreciate being carried around the office on the shoulders of the staff, there is an essential need to celebrate a job well-done. Find ways to cheer when associates hit a sales target – even if it is as simple as an accolades display in the break room. If one salesperson exceeds their goals for the month, celebrate with everyone. Not only will it help to foster a sense of unity, it will generate incentive to others to reach their goals as well.
FAILURE ISN’T FATAL
Famed Baseball Hall of Famer Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.” He would understand that fear – the Home Run King was just as likely to strike out as he was to knock one out of the park: in his career, he hit 714 homeruns and struck out 1,330 times. Part of what made him such as success in the ballpark, however, was his refusal to give up. Despite his inconsistencies at bat, he drew thousands to the stadium because fans knew that he would swing for the fence – every time he got up to bat.
In the business world, entrepreneurs need to show that same level of tenacity. Not every idea is a success. Sometimes the plan completely falls apart. The entrepreneur who is swinging for the fence, however, will be back at the plate again, ready for their next turn at bat.
VICTORY HAS CLASS
The game is over. The scoreboard makes it clear: one team won and another team lost. Confetti is flying around, a giant trophy is being passed, and a news agency is asking the winning team how it feels to be the victor. Generally at that point, the camera pans to the losing team, where players are sitting on the bench in shock and dismay, and depending on the game, someone is shedding a tear or two. A true champion accepts the accolades for winning, and takes the opportunity to acknowledge the competition: “They played a tough game. Almost pulled out a win today. Was nervous we weren’t going to be able to hold onto the lead.” It would be easy, at that moment, to bash the losing team by pointing out how much better the winning team played. Instead, the champion quietly pays tribute to the opponent because they understand that without an opponent, there isn’t a victory.
In the same way, entrepreneurs can avoid the bashing and demeaning of competitors by realizing that in a marketplace, there needs to be variety. Rather than criticize and belittle competitors, acknowledge that there is a market for everyone and the presence of other similar products makes everyone work harder. Not only will it elevate the entrepreneur and the company, it keeps the attention on the product – not the drama that surrounds negativity.
WINNERS ON AND OFF THE FIELD
Venus Williams: Half of the dynamic duo of the Williams sisters, Venus Williams is a professional tennis star who has consistently ranked in the top five women’s tennis players. When she isn’t dominating the court, Venus is CEO of V-Starr Interiors, an interior design firm. Along with endorsement contracts, Venus owns sports teams, and is a New York Times’ best-selling author.
Lincoln Kennedy: The former NFL offensive lineman catapulted his career from a player who provided protection to an insurance salesman who offers protection. In addition to his insurance career, he has also landed a spot as a studio host on the NFL network.
Mike Ditka: This NFL tight-end-turned-coach has a reputation for not doing anything half-way. Since leaving the Chicago Bears organization, he has owned restaurants, done broadcasting, been politically active and more. His current activities have him working for ESPN as a broadcaster.
Entrepreneurs can learn from athletes, and can bring that level of drive and execution into the workplace, transforming business into a real-world example of how to play to win. While the office isn’t the place for cheerleaders and concession stands, the principles that athletes use to compete are relevant within the workplace. The next time Sports Center is on TV, don’t think of it as entertainment – think of it as research.
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