The skills that give you an edge in competitive sport can give you an edge in business. Focus, determination, perfect practice. Staying cool under pressure and a heightened awareness that hard work pays off. Sport creates expansive entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs create resourceful sportspeople.
Business and sport have many similarities including that both require the best version of you to make them a success. I heard from entrepreneurs who compete in sports about the benefits it can bring, with these being the five most cited.
The world’s greatest athletes are intentional about their sport. They are intentional about how and when they train, what they eat, and how they rest and recover. The world’s greatest entrepreneurs have a similar approach to their business endeavours.
Hannah Thomson, founder of The Joy Club and offshore sailor, documented the lessons she learned when racing from the UK to Uruguay. They included the importance of regular honest feedback and debriefs in ensuring teams excel, and the rule of preparation; 80% preparation, 20% execution. Within her boat race crew, each member’s unique role was clearly defined for maximum performance and efficiency.
A fruitful boat race, perfect free throw hit rate or national record 10k time don’t happen without training, you can’t just turn up and hope. Securing investment or launching a product is the same; they take planning and practice. The similarities between sport and business are plenty and being intentional is key to success in both.
In sport, inputs equal outputs with few exceptions. “The team with the best players wins” said Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. It’s the same for a hockey, football or basketball team. More time spent practicing shooting, more shots on target. More perfect reps, more perfect competitions. A focused matchday routine, a match you’re more likely to control. Like in business, luck plays a part but it’s just the icing on the cake. The cards you’re dealt can set you up, but it’s what you do with them that makes the difference.
Running a business is more associated with poor health than optimal wellbeing. High blood pressure, stress, anger issues and a drink problem from too many networking events or client drinks. The long-time media caricature of a businessperson is greedy, overweight, sweaty and mean, certainly not the picture of health.
But times have changed and, along with diversity, sport has played a part. Business owners with a competitive sport push themselves in other ways. The endorphins released during training and competing carry over to the rest of their day. They are happier in general. Their resting heart rate is lower, so even the most testing of work challenges won’t make their blood boil.
There’s more. Competitive athletes running businesses are likely to take their diet seriously. Less likely to munch on office biscuits, their blood sugar levels are flatter, which is conducive to better work. Succeeding in both business and sport requires you to be at the top of your game physically and mentally and the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
Turning up to the same workplace, doing the same work with the same people, only to come home and do the same things with the same people, does not expand your mind or life. Perhaps someone new will start at work or you’ll watch a documentary on Netflix, but over time it leads to staleness. Well-rounded is a term used in college applications; colleges want to know that students have interests other than passing exams. It makes them more worldly, approachable, knowledgeable in wider fields. When hiring, you’ll notice that each candidate’s CV contains an “other interests” section. Usually that space says nothing more than “drinking with my friends” in a creative way. When someone has a sport, a hobby, a proficiency in something other than doing their job, it says a lot about their character and what they are capable of.
It puts them ahead and shows they are not happy to go with the flow and not question. Expansive interests leading to an expansive mind with crossover benefits. Ashish Thakkar, competitive footballer and founder of web agency Jimmy’s Value World and says that football “keeps me sharp and has taught me how to handle pressure well.” Competitive sports develop resilience and resourcefulness, traits that expand a business and a career. They introduce you to people with new ideas, backgrounds and ways of seeing the world.
In the book Range, David Epstein puts forward the case that generalists thrive in a world of specialists. He cites several examples of where specialists have failed to see answers that came from using analogies or applying knowledge from outside their field. In science, for example, the scientists able to make the breakthroughs no one else could had comprehensive interests outside their specialism of work.
Making better use of time
Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to the time made available for it. If nothing is diarised for an evening it’s easy to spend it working. Plans with friends or a film can easily be moved, but training or competing is non-negotiable for athletes. A work project, therefore, cannot expand. If it can’t roll over into the evening it must be completed in the allotted time.
I ran a social media for ten years and never missed a gym session. No matter what happened, it wasn’t an option. Knowing that something must be completed brings about focus and ruthless cutting of anything else. Better use of time. If I cannot miss practice at 6pm there’s no way I’m going to respond to emails that can wait. It forces your attention to the most important work and ensures it’s done.
Similarly, taking work seriously means that training can’t expand. It’s focused and definite. There’s less time messing about, having a chat and not improving.
Sport is meditation. When you are focused on running 100 metres, cycling the first lap, lifting the last rep or shooting for the goal, you are not thinking about work. It’s a far better way of switching off than watching television or having a drink because your mind has no choice but to be elsewhere. Artis Rozentals, CEO of DeskTime, participates in bike races. He says they “help me disconnect my mind from work.” He has noticed that “after a tough race I’m more energized and focused at work. Bike racing has also made me more adventurous and stress-resistant in business.”
Knowing that there’s another world out there, separate to your business, can bring about perspective. Your boxing opponent doesn’t care about your IPO. Your swimming coach knows nothing of your Twitter followers. To your sports friends you’re an athlete, not an entrepreneur. Knowing that something so significant to you can be so unimportant to others creates distance, which means dealing with it is more pragmatic and less emotional.
When you are focused on something else, your brain’s default mode network is whirring away making sense of information and storing it for long term use. It’s also retrieving information and is why an answer might pop into your head long after the problem was introduced and when you weren’t consciously thinking about it. Competing in a sport lets your default mode network do its thing. Whilst you’re there, hitting the ball, pounding the pavement or dodging the punches, your unconscious mind is preparing answers, ready for you to find out when you get back to it.
Combining competitive sport with entrepreneurship means being intentional, having better health, making better use of time, expanding your mind and life and switching off from work during training or competitions. In business and in sport, pick something and go all in. The benefits gleaned from having both are vast and you might well love the combination.