What can business learn from Sport?

In the last decade, the world of elite sport has been getting more business-like, but there’s a lot the world of work could still learn from elite sport.

The world of work talks about performance but too often it really only values results. Athletes and coaches in elite sport know results really matter too. But they’re equally serious about performance.

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High performance headlines

  • There’s greater emphasis on preparation, planning and understanding in sport. In business, there’s a relentless focus on ‘doing’ stuff at the expense of preparing and reviewing
  • In sport, more time is spent reviewing winning recipes than analysing losses
  • Elite performers, no matter the arena, understand the importance of physical fitness and energy on performance

The full viewpoint

There are numerous examples of all sorts of sporting successes being used as metaphors for success in life and business. With the turnaround in Olympic sport success within the UK over the last 7 Olympic Games, people are rightly interested in how such success might have been achieved and built upon. It’s clear though that all hasn’t been without cost, with many stories of dysfunctional cultures and behaviours. As we become more aware of the acceptable and unacceptable price to pay for success, it’s clear sport and business have a lot to learn from each other. The challenge for everyone is to ensure all of the lessons are being learned so that the highs can be achieved and the lows avoided, at all costs.

With the growing number of successful sports, there are many opportunities to hear motivational speakers waxing lyrical about what it takes to win. However, times change and we constantly have to ask can sports people teach anything to the next generation of business leaders? and there are some fundamental truths that are worth building from in order to answer the question.

In the world of elite sport there’s a much greater emphasis on preparation than there is in corporate life, even though most businesses tell us they know how important preparation is. As much as 90% of an elite athlete’s time is spent preparing and just 10% doing the job. No company could duplicate this, but still there’s too much of an obsession with ‘doing’ in the business world at the expense of planning and understanding. In the majority of businesses too much effort goes into working out what has gone wrong and what doesn’t work. In sport it’s the complete opposite. The emphasis is on understanding what makes someone good at what they do, how they can become even better at it and how they can pass on these lessons to others in their team.

With both an NFL prospect and an Olympic gold medal skier in his classroom, it’s no surprise that Karl Moore, a professor at McGill University in Canada, should also find parallels between sporting and business achievement. One of the most surprising is the concentration on fitness that athletes and top managers seem to share. “I’ve interviewed over 200 CEOs in my time,” he says, “and what’s struck me is just how much time they spend working out to maintain their physical fitness at the high level they see as necessary to cope with the stresses of such a demanding job.” However he maintains that one of the best lessons that sports can teach aspiring entrepreneurs and business leaders comes directly from a student who is also a professional footballer—the danger of complacency. “It becomes clear that every single day you should be learning, developing and improving, because if you don’t you are going to lose out to someone who does.”