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What can business learn from athletes?

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Directing a company is tough at the best of times, but the past few years have been particularly challenging.

The pandemic brought a wave of risks and opportunities for firms to deal with as they move to motivate teams and gain the edge over the competition.

The high-pressure climate reminds me of my first career in professional sport. As an international rugby player, change and uncertainty were the norm. The greatest leaders I played with lead by example, embraced the challenge of high performance pressure inspiring teammates to fight for the yards that led to tries, and hopefully, victory.

Indeed, the athletic world has a great deal to teach those aiming for progress in the corporate domain. Four of the best lessons are listed below:

Top achievements are built on trust

Before England were crowned European football champions this year, head coach Sarina Wiegman revealed one of team’s secrets of success.

“You perform better [in] an environment where you’re safe, where you will not be judged,” Wiegman told The Guardian. Her captain Leah Williamson spoke of their intention to foster an environment in which it’s okay to be vulnerable.

It’s an ethos based on care, inclusivity and respect – keystones to a culture of trust which 60% of UK workers say builds productivity and “directly impacts their sense of belonging at work”.

Success is a rocky road

On November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series after 108 years of waiting. The “loveable losers” finally ended the longest championship drought in pro sport, but the Cubs had been growing in strength throughout that decisive season.

Explaining how winning mentalities can lead to great outcomes, Professor of Economics, David P. Myatt says:

“Continued success can be self-reinforcing and lead to an upcycle. That makes the players want to continue their run, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the same in business – we all want to play for a long-lasting, winning team.”

Leaders should also strive to connect wins, however small. This behaviour speeds our ability to view positive experiences productively, in turn unlocking motivation and momentum.

Fight smart

At Wimbledon 2010, Frenchman Nicolas Mahut won 502 points to American John Isner’s 478. Yet it was Insner who won the historic first round encounter.

Isner won where it mattered. In enterprise, this is the art of being able to see through competing priorities to focus resources where they’ll have the greatest impact on the overall aim.

Failure is part of the process

Many Olympic gold medallists cite their setbacks as milestones on their journey to the top of the podium.

Similarly, “failures” in rugby made me step back and consider the value of what I was doing so that I could make necessary changes for the better.

In the corporate sphere, bouncing back from perceived failure is the only way to get things right in the long-run. It’s a habit that creates lasting resilience.

The examples above are just a fraction of the intelligence that athletes bring with them when they move into business roles, post-sport. Over time, their elite mindsets and perspectives filter through the workplace, inspiring executives, teams and colleagues alike.

Athlete Career Transition

Athlete Career Transition helps retired athletes to move out of sport and into second careers where they can leverage their skillsets to the full.

Athletes stay at the top of their game, while businesses tap into the many benefits that come from having a champion on board.


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