Sports – Lessons from the Olympics

Business is not like sport. The 100m race is over in just a few seconds and even a marathon only lasts a few hours, whereas business has to succeed year in year out.

Because most athletes have never tried to run a business the links they make in their “motivational presentations” to business are tenuous and somewhat naïve. Quite frankly, they’re not much good.

So does sport have anything to offer business? To find out we need to look at the lessons from sport through the eyes of business.

It’s a team thing

There is not a single athlete in the world that has achieved a medal in a competition that has done it alone. When Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, he was part of a very large team whose objective was to get a bike from the start to the finish quicker than anyone else. Bradley just happened to be the rider. From the bike mechanics, to the sponsors, to the other riders, the sport scientists, the drivers, everyone played their part in getting the bike over the line first. Everyone understood his or her role in helping achieve the outcome.

In business, too often people do not really understand why they are doing what they are doing or the impact their actions have on the business. In one memorable meeting in one of the leading accountancy firms I asked a junior member of the team what he did. It turns out he writes reports, but he has no idea whether anybody is reading them or if they are adding value – but he keeps on writing. In a recent meeting with a retailer I asked those attending how many customers would have to purchase a typical basket of goods to simply cover the cost of us sitting there. They couldn’t tell me the answer, why? because they didn’t know the basics of their business. How do you add value?

How do you know what that value is and whether it is increasing or decreasing?

Count it

Sport has really clear unambiguous goals, e.g. Gold at the 2012 Olympics, third in the medal table, top of the Premier League. These goals are the final outcome of a myriad of other goals achieved along the way, whether this be percentage body fat, or the amount of money needed to be secured through sponsors. The key thing about goals in sport is that they can be counted. This makes it possible to monitor performance and determine where the next effort should be made.

In business we often hear of the acronym SMART, but very rarely ever apply it properly. The result is an abundance of poorly defined objectives that cannot be counted and therefore makes performance difficult to assess.  Almost any aspect of business can be counted – even seemingly vague things such as goodwill or morale. Goodwill might be measured (indirectly) in terms of the amount of hours staff are working as a crude indicator of discretionary effort. Morale could be measured indirectly by examining absenteeism rates. The point is, if you can find a way of counting it, you can measure it and if you measure it you can evaluate performance. Just be careful – what you measure is what you get!

Talent is overrated

Geoff Colvin wrote an insightful book called “Talent is overrated” in which he makes the point that success is far more to do with hard work than talent. The difference between elite performers and the rest of us is the focus on developing all relevant aspects of the required skillset (not just those things they enjoy doing) and the total amount of hours spent practising – they practise a lot more, and practise more effectively.

Elite performers in sport have learnt the mental resilience to push themselves harder and harder in the pursuit of outstanding performance. Anders Ericsson’s research suggested it takes 10,000 hours ofdeliberate practice to become an Olympic champion. Now, stop and ask yourself, how many hours have you and your colleagues deliberately practised being a better team. By practise I mean consciously focused on the way you work together and deliberately practised the skills required to be a higher performing team? If you’re like most people, the chances are very few hours. So don’t be surprised if your performance is not as great as you would like it to be. Whether it be presentations, understanding spreadsheets, writing reports, or working as a team deliberate practice will result in superior performance. The more you practice the better you will get.

It needn’t be difficult

High performance is developed over time and is the outcome of the cumulative impact of lots of small decisions. For example, reading one business related article or paper twice a week means 104 articles a year and over a decade equates to 1040 articles! That’s an awful lot of knowledge accumulated through the introduction of a small, simple to do task. Read this many articles and unsurprisingly you will be viewed as something of an expert in time.

Coaching works

Throughout the whole of an athletes career they will have worked with coaches. These people will know the sport and know what it takes to succeed. They bring this knowledge to help an individual improve their performance. What a contrast to business!

Why on earth is it that business coaches are not expected to have a thorough understanding of business? Business coaching seems to pride itself on not having an opinion, allowing the individual to work out what they want to do. I don’t know about you, but when I get a sports coach, I don’t want him to leave it all to me to work out what to do, I want him or her to coach me and give me specific input into what I can do to improve my performance. He doesn’t have to have been an elite performer him or herself (although it helps) but they do need to be of a reasonable standard and understand how to coach someone.

The sooner we destroy the myths of business coaching and replace it with a model similar to that used in sports the better.

Fit for work

Rene Descartes has a lot to answer for. He might be the father of modern philosophy but his notion of mind and body as separate entities that pervades everyday thinking is bunkum. Your mind is your body. The brain does not sit in isolation from the rest of you it is all part of one and the same thing – you! Our bodies (that includes the brain by the way) are the way we interact with the world around us. Wouldn’t you rather a tool that’s fit for purpose and able to get the best from whatever situation you find yourself in? You wouldn’t use a blunt saw unless you had to, so why reduce your effectiveness by being unfit, unhealthy and lacking the mental and physical resilience sport can teach you.

When we are fit, we have a greater capacity to keep going. We get less fatigued and when we do get tired we can recover more quickly, we can cope with stress better. The body has an amazing capacity to adapt. The more we use parts of our body the greater the adaptations in response. By participating in sport and eating properly we slow the ageing process, reduce the chances of heart disease, cancer and remain more mentally alert – better able to cope with the world around us. A number of companies are waking up to the idea of being fit for work.  If I had my way, healthiness would be part of the annual performance review.

It’s more than kicking a ball around

The greatest athletes are multi-talented. To be at the top of their game they need to be able to work with and through others. They need to be able to analyse data. They need to inspire those around them to drive the performance upwards. Sound familiar? That’s because we need those same skills in business.

Watch more closely

So next time you find yourself watching the athlete on the podium – see beyond the individual to the vast team that sits behind this achievement. Reflect on the thousands of small decisions taken to deliver this performance. Think about the crystal clear overarching goal and the many sub goals that were achieved along the way. Then start dreaming about what you could achieve in your business with deliberate practice, absolute focus and teamwork. Get out there and inspire those around you. Maybe there is something we can learn from sport after all.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2013 All rights asserted