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Tracey Davison

Mindstrong Ltd

Client Relationship Manager

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Does Participation in Competitive Sports give you an Advantage in Business?


There is mounting interest in the link between success in sport and success in business, with the evidence suggesting that those who have taken part in sports at a competitive level will fair better in business than those who haven't.  I have previously blogged about this very topic in relation to coaching Exceptional Coaching = Exceptional Performance, just ask Andy Murray) and to the Marginal Gains approach used by the Team GB Cycling Team.  But what is it about taking part in sport at a competitive level that increases your chances of success in business and is it ever too late to learn these transferable skills? 

1. Creates a winning mindset.  The desire and determination to win, no matter what the cost, is the driving force that gets the athlete up out of bed to train at 5am on a cold, winter morning.  Sports people accept defeat and failure as merely part of the journey to success; opportunities from which they can learn more about their own performance and adapt and change accordingly.  In business, this 'winning' mindset drives performance and success in exactly the same way; enabling individuals to continue in their pursuit of success, overcoming the inevitable challenges with their 'can do' attitude.
Performance Psychologist Professor Graham Jones says:
“Success in sports and business alike relies on the ability to continually move performance to higher levels. What you achieve this year will never be good enough next year. Goals and standards move onward and upward, creating an unrelenting demand to find new means and methods to ensure the delivery of performance curves that can seem tantalisingly, or even impossibly, out of reach.”

2. Heightens awareness of the competition.  Whilst in sport, as in business, you can only ever influence your own performance, that is not to say you should ignore your competition.  Sports people and teams spend much of their time reviewing what their competitors are doing.  Sometimes it is tactical; identifying how to get the upper hand when up against them and, other times it is purely for the benefit of learning from someone who is better than you (or from their mistakes).  Sportspeople never get complacent, even when they're winning.  They know that to stay out in front you have to plan for and predict what others might do.  Successful business people follow these same rules.  They're excellent innovators; constantly seeking better ways of doing things and capitalising on both the successes and failures of their competition.

3. Boosts confidence.  The relentless pursuit of goals and a growth mindset, in which you can suffer defeat but not let it crush you, significantly enhance confidence.  If you look at people who have had negative experiences of sport on the other hand, (eg; always being the last one picked for a team or continually placing last in races), they often suffer with low self-esteem.  In business, confidence manifests itself both physically, eg; a firm handshake, stronger voice, or just in the way you carry yourself and also psychologically;  being more able to deal with confrontation, give presentations or approach more senior, or forthcoming colleagues.

4. If the body's fit, so too is the mind.  Once you have taken part in competitive sports, you're more likely to exercise and maintain a good level of fitness later in life, even if you no longer compete.  Exercise has no end of benefits; the feel-good chemicals endorphins are released when exercising, which reduce the perception of pain and trigger positive feelings in the body.  Healthier, fitter people are better equipped to deal with work-related stress, with longer hours and frequent traveling and they tend to sleep better and so are better rested.  These people may also be more successful because of the benefits they enjoy from better job prospects, which come about from the assumptions and stereotypes that employers attach, ie; slim, "healthy-looking" people are more likely to be hired and promoted than overweight people because they are perceived as being more able and participation in competitive sports suggests an individual who's ambitious and an achiever.

5. Heightens your ability to work as part of a team.  We all know that highly effective teams deliver greater results and those with previous experience of being in a sports team tend to be better evolved to work in this way.  These people understand that success can only come by supporting one another to realise their collective potential and they recognise the impact their own performance has on the overall team's success.  Although they tend to be competitive in nature, when it comes to working as part of a team, they understand that it's not their team mates who they are in competition with.  

In conclusion

It is clear that there are a number of transferable skills between sport and business, as to whether those skills can be acquired later in life perhaps depends on where you sit on the whole nature vs nurture debate.  Those who take part in competitive sport from a young age have the advantage because this is the time when we are still forming our characters, belief systems and habits.  Therefore, the winning, growth mindset becomes embedded into their psyches.  For those who get on board later in life, these skills may not come so naturally.  However, to say that they're not achievable would be wrong.  In the pursuit of personal development and ultimately, success, we must heighten self-awareness, maintain focus on our goals, learn to accept mistakes and failures as opportunities from which to learn and learn how to work effectively with our colleagues to realise both our individual and collective potential.

One Response

  1. Sports benefits for Business are limited

    I think that the claims made for the benefits of sport in business are greatly exaggerated.  Competitive sport does have some parallels in business as mentioned above – mainly in teamwork and execution.  However, in many important respects business is fundamentally different from sport and requires different skills.  Here are just a couple of examples:

    1.  Creativity and Innovation.  A key requirement in business is to find new and better ways to meet customer needs – sometimes by finding an entirely new business model.  The opportunities for innovation in sport are very limited.  Can you name one major innovation introduced by a sports person since the Fosbury Flop 45 years ago?

    2.  Resource Allocation.  You cannot play for more than 90 minutes and you cannot field more than 11 players in a soccer team no matter how much you want to win the game.  In business you can put 1 person or 1000 on your new product team.  You can deploy resources in all manner of ways to achieve your goals.

    3.  Customer Focus.  Sport is all about beating the competition but if you are working in care for the elderly or a hospital you are not concerned about beating the competition.  You are concerned about collaborating with your colleagues to get the best outcomes for the client.  In business you are focused on the customer – not the competition.

    Sport is fine for entertainment, exercise and recreation.  It has some limited lessons for business but let's keep them in perspective. 

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Tracey Davison

Client Relationship Manager

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