There has always been a clear link between sports and business. Similar metaphors, a team environment and some serious competition makes the two career paths very closely related, especially psychologically.
Psychologists have long drawn comparisons between the two, with the notion of the ‘corporate athlete’ being a widely accepted profile. The ‘corporate athlete’ is a concept created by the psychologists Loehr and Schwartz in their book The Power of Full Engagement. Their findings were incredible, most notably identifying that while athletes train tirelessly in order to be at their prime condition, both physically and mentally, so they can perform on occasions that make up roughly 10% of their careers, ‘corporate athletes’ are expected to perform endlessly, each and every day, and get - if they’re lucky - only around 10% of the time to train.
A similar observation notes that "mentally tough athletes are also able to identify what is within their control and what is not so that they can exert as much control as possible." This definitely applies to those in business environments. Recognising which factors are malleable and which are set in stone will allow for a more direct corporate strategy. If your brand and messaging is non-negotiable, consider channels and your audience. If you aren’t responding well to a management style from your new director, consider how to adapt and cope under a different method of leadership.
There are, however, many transferable principles of sports performance that can benefit professional individuals and change the way we think about the people around us and the challenges in front of us. When operating in tough, challenging or even hostile work environments, it can be incredibly useful to have an appropriate strategy and mindset in place to handle your situation and come out stronger on the other side.
Whether on the pitch or in the boardroom, determination is a characteristic shared by both sets of players. While athletes look to reduce times, increase weights or improve accuracy, professionals look to hit targets, increase reach and improve conversion rates. The focus on the end goal is what will help motivate and energise either individual - but the same advice applies here; your end goal needs to be achievable. SMART goals aren’t just corporatespeak, they are realistic measures to make sure you have a target you can hit, not a vague vision of a future where you run the 100m in 2 seconds flat. Strength, determination and a healthy sprinkling of pragmatism will get you through here, not superhuman abilities!
Being committed is crucial to success in both. While athletes forgo boozy lifestyles and lazy Sundays to ensure they’re in peak physical condition, business people choose routines and working styles that help them achieve their maximum performance. Those who truly wish to dedicate their lives to career success and lofty ambitions need to be committed to the cause. If you think your happiness lies elsewhere, there is absolutely no shame, but don’t expect to be the next sub-30 billionaire if you prefer late breakfasts and won’t work past 5 30pm.
Both these career paths require intense mental strength. We, at SmartPA, talk a lot about supporting our people to be the best version of themselves, and that applies mentally more than anything else. If you lack confidence or self-belief, you will struggle to inspire others around you to trust in your judgement and abilities, whether that is on the pitch or off. Likewise, recognising when you aren’t your best self is just as important, if not more. Knowing when to sub out or to have a stern talk with yourself shows emotional intelligence and helps you recognise more quickly when you’re on your game or off it. When you can notice mood and mental changes quicker, you are able to make improvements more effectively and manage the expectations of those around you.
4. Ongoing development
Recognising that you’re never ‘done’ is also important. Athletes are always looking to move faster, run quicker, lift more and drive harder - similarly to professionals who can always upskill and learn more about new technology, new methods and new ways of adapting strategies and customer approaches. The trick here is to be open-minded; never turn down a new idea because you don’t understand it. You can’t recognise a plan’s potential for success without understanding how it works and the moving parts involved. You’re never too senior or too experienced to do your research and go back to the drawing board, and most importantly; never pretend to understand something and take a view because you feel you should know the answer. HIPPOs belong in zoos, not in boardrooms, so always make judgements from a place of knowledge.
Nothing is more crucial in life than good communication. Whether you’re part of a sports team or an office team, you need to talk to those around you and talk well. Communication doesn’t just mean verbalising any and all thoughts, it’s about speaking with clarity. This is especially applicable to managers as it is team captains; your tone and method of communication sets the tone for the entire team. If you don’t like receiving emails, don’t send them. If you want honesty and open discussion, you need to lead on that; don’t expect junior members of the team to dictate the flow of information. When you are clear on what you expect, everyone knows where they stand and can more easily fit together as a cohesive unit.
Both sports and business come with equal amounts of pressure. Whether from an expectant home crowd in a championship or a boardroom full of investors and directors, everyone in their career eventually reports to someone else. Stakeholders demand different things in different industries, but it does mean that every player in this environment suffers from the pressures associated with high expectations. Some tips here; always do your best and manage those expectations. The former will help with performance reviews and progress - people are always more forgiving if they can see that you’re doing everything possible to own your success and do better. The latter, if you have a manager or coach who has high expectations, have a conversation about why they are so high and if they have any insight on how you might get there. Managers sit where they do for a reason, they need to know your job or your sport inside out to be able to guide you effectively. If the person sitting above you doesn’t know how to help, you need to find another source of information.
If you need advice in your chosen career, whatever route or specialism, don’t be afraid to look outwardly to see how others cope. Thankfully nowadays there is a much greater spotlight on mental wellbeing and therefore a growing understanding of the psychological nuances related to managing a team and running a business.
To finish on a thought from the great Simon Sinek - if you or someone around you is facing a challenge, all you need to do is show up, and show up with empathy. When you’re ready to listen and really hearing what’s occurring around you, you will find you become a better professional and a better leader just by paying attention.