Entrepreneurs can learn a great deal from the world of sports, and in particular, we can learn from the professional athletes themselves.
In the past year, I have written several posts about ways we can learn from others and from the world around us; I wrote about how much we can learn from kids, what dogs can teach us, and what we can learn from musicians.
This morning I was thinking about ways to improve my focus and productivity, and it occurred to me that athletes provide a great model for this; here is a group of professionals whose careers depend on their ability to focus and produce. A relatively small subset of workers within a more significant industry, athletes are not only there to entertain us. but to motivate and inspire us.
In business, we are constantly bombarded with sports analogies and metaphors, and as a society, we tend to lionize athletes and their achievements. I believe this esteem is appropriate, especially in business contact. Professional athletes strive daily to perfect their skills, promote their teams, and win. Entrepreneurs stand to gain significantly by doing these things, too.
1. Athletes train. Athletes prepare themselves before and during their season through constant training and conditioning. Strengthening exercises, stretching, and endurance training; are all part of a regimen that top athletes carry out throughout their careers to ensure they are in top shape to perform their jobs. The best entrepreneurs enact their own version of this; we work out by constantly studying new business ideas and innovation, strategizing, analyzing, and planning. The best entrepreneurs ensure their minds are well-trained and properly conditioned to adjust to an ever-changing competitive and business environment.
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2. Athletes focus. When a batter is in their stance, standing at home plate, and closely watching the opposing pitcher, they show intense focus and concentration. In business, we rarely have someone throw an object toward our bodies at 100+ miles per hour (not that it doesn’t happen occasionally). The extraordinary focus required in sports is a quality that athletes develop over time, and that good coaching and training encourage and enable. Entrepreneurs can learn much from athletes about keeping their eye on the ball and concentrating on what’s most important at any given moment.
3. Athletes practice. Unlike the everyday conditioning that athletes do to keep their bodies strong, practice is repeating a motion or activity repeatedly. This starts when athletes are still kids playing in a youth sports program. Kicking, dribbling, swinging, and throwing are physical activities that, when repeated endlessly, allow the body to develop a ‘sense memory.’ This sense of memory is how athletes’ bodies can respond in fractions of a second to the fast-moving action in the game around them. Entrepreneurs, too, must develop their own version of sense memory to respond quickly to the data and other information continuously presented to them. And just as athletes practice that shot repeatedly, entrepreneurs can execute their own version by continuously learning and practicing new skills.
4. Athletes take coaching. The most substantial relationship in sports is between a great athlete and their coach. Coaches provide guidance, structure, context, and discipline, which players can utilize daily. In business, we look for mentors, teachers, and coaches to teach us, provide direction, and give feedback. The best entrepreneurs actively seek out their own coaches and fully leverage their knowledge and strengths.
5. Athletes work together. There are plenty of examples of athletes who compete in non-team sports, but entrepreneurs stand to learn the most from teams. The most successful sports teams are those that depend entirely upon one another. Great teams often have great stars and standouts who provide leadership and skills, giving a team an extra advantage. Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Entrepreneurs, too, can be all-stars, but their companies rarely succeed meaningfully without a great team surrounding them. Aristotle’s quote, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is as accurate in business as in sports.
6. Athletes compete. Intensely. Actively. Fiercely. Do I need to spell this particular analogy out for you? ‘Nuf said.
7. Athletes care. Along with every champagne-soaked championship celebration you have ever seen on television, there were always the shots of the losing team, watching dejectedly from their own bench. Often with tears rolling down and glum expressions on the faces of the losing players. Winning entrepreneurs are as intensely joyous as winning athletes, and entrepreneurs who come in second are just as tortured as their brethren on the losing end of that championship game. As it should be, right?
8. Athletes sacrifice. In baseball, the bunt is used strategically to advance a runner on base into a scoring position. In hockey, a player with a seemingly great opportunity for a shot on goal will often pass the puck to a player with an even better shot. And in basketball, the player who selfishly insists on taking all of the team’s shots will often be in the shadow of the selfless playmaker. Entrepreneurship relies in part on similar sacrifices for the team. Whether that means working late, so your team has the information they need first thing in the morning or sharing credit for a key accomplishment, sacrifice is critical to the team’s and the business’s success.
9. Athletes play. Play, as in engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation. It must be a great life to go to work every day and play the game you love best. Athletes are blessed among us for the gift of doing what gives them the greatest joy. Entrepreneurs live a similar dream – every day, we go to work knowing that we are exactly where we want to be and doing exactly what we want to do. Is it ‘play’ in the same sense? Perhaps not, but it sure feels like it on the good days.
10. Athletes win. Show me an athlete who doesn’t live every day in the pursuit of victory, and I will show you the one who didn’t make it to the top of their sport. Winning is the underlying, foundational reason for sports. In business, winning is just as important, not in the sense of vanquishment, but in the sense of pure competition. Entrepreneurs want to win, succeed, and always want the recognition and advancement that come with it. Win.
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