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.

Reading time: 10 minutes

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 loses
  • Elite performers, no matter the arena, understand the importance of physical fitness and energy on performance

The full viewpoint

Perhaps it’s in light of the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, but there seems to have been an increasing interest in teaching the business aspects of sport recently. EMLYON business school in France, for example, begins its new MSc in Sports and Outdoor Industry Management this autumn, and across Britain and America, schools such as Liverpool, Coventry, George Washington in D.C. and Drexel in Philadelphia are all offering sports-oriented Masters or MBA programmes.

Clearly business schools are well placed to offer tips on finance and management to sporting enterprises. But some business-school professors wonder whether it also works the other way around: can sports people teach anything to the next generation of business leaders?

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.”