Entrepreneurs can learn a great deal from the world of sport, and in particular we can learn from the professional athletes themselves. In the past year, I have written a number of posts about ways we can learn from others and from the world around us; I wrote about how much we can learn from kids, about what dogs can teach us, and about what we can learn from musicians. This morning I was thinking about ways I could improve my own focus and productivity and it occurred to me that athletes provide a great model for this; here is a group of professionals whose very careers are dependent on their ability to focus and produce. A relatively small subset of workers within a larger 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 that this esteem is appropriate, especially in the contact of business. Professional athletes strive every day to perfect their skills, to promote their teams, and to win. Entrepreneurs stand to gain greatly by doing these things, too.
1. Athletes train. Athletes prepare themselves both before and during their season through constant training and conditioning. Strengthening exercises, stretching, endurance training; all are part of a regimen that top athletes carry out throughout their careers to ensure they are in top shape to perform their job. The best entrepreneurs enact their own version of this; we work out by constantly studying new business ideas and innovation, by strategizing, by analyzing, and by planning. The best entrepreneurs make sure that their minds are well trained and properly conditioned to adjust to an ever-changing competitive and business environment.
2. Athletes focus. When a batter is in their stance, standing at home plate, and closely watching the opposing pitcher, they are a picture of intense focus and concentration. In business we rarely have someone throw an object towards our bodies at 100+ miles per hour (not that it doesn’t happen on occasion). 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 learns much from athletes about keeping their eye on the ball and concentrating on what’s most important in any given moment.
3. Athletes practice. Different from the every day conditioning that athletes do to keep their bodies strong, practice is the repetition of a motion or activity over and over. Kicking, dribbling, swinging, and throwing are physical activities that, when repeated endlessly, allow the body to develop a ‘sense memory.’ This sense memory is how athlete’s bodies are able 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 in order to respond quickly to the data and other information continuously presented to them. And just as athletes practice that shot over and over and over, entrepreneurs can execute their own version of this by continuously learning and practicing new skills.
4. Athletes take coaching. The strongest relationship in sports is between a great athlete and their coach. Coaches provide guidance, structure, context, and discipline which players can utilize every day. In business we look for mentors, teachers, and coaches of our own to teach us, to provide direction, and to give feedback. The very best entrepreneurs actively seek out their own coaches and fully leverage the knowledge and strengths they provide.
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 completely upon one another. Great teams often have great stars, standouts who provide leadership and skills which give a team an extra advantage. Michael Jordan said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Entrepreneurs, too, can be all-stars, but their companies rarely succeed in a meaningful way without a great team surrounding them. Aristotle’s quote about, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is as true in business as it is in sports.
6. Athletes compete. Intensely. Actively. Fiercely. Do I really need to spell this particular analogy out for you? ‘Nuf said.
7. Athletes care. Along with every champagne-soaked championship celebration that 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 off the losing players. Winning entrepreneurs are as intensely joyous as winning athletes, and entrepreneurs who come in second 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 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 play-maker. 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 success of the team and the business.
9. Athletes play. Play, as in engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation. What a great life it must be to go into work every day and simply play the game you love the best. Athletes are blessed among us for the gift of doing the thing that gives them the greatest joy. Entrepreneurs live a similar dream – every day we go into work knowing that we are exactly were we want to be and doing exactly what we want to do. Is it ‘play’ in the same sense? Perhaps not, but on the good days it sure feels like it.
10. Athletes win. Show me an athlete who doesn’t live every day in the pursuit of victory and I will show you one who didn’t make it to the top of their sport. Winning is the underlying, foundational reason for sport. In business winning is just as important; not in the sense of vanquishment, but in the sense of pure competition. Entrepreneurs want to win, want to succeed, and always want the recognition and advancement that come with it. Win.
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