Playing sport at a professional elite level requires self-belief, determination, commitment and perseverance – all the necessary traits of a great leader in business. Incredibly, elite athletes can teach us a lot when it comes down to being a great leader. Stan Beecham, who is the author of Elite Minds: How Winners Think Differently to Create a Competitive Edge and Maximize Success writes about how important is to emulate what the greats do in sport.
“The obvious similarity is that they’re both competitive arenas” Beecham has said. His coaching explains that people high up in the business world and elite athletes, the training and all-round mental toughness that is required, is very similar for both. People who want to be successful in business can draw on many lessons that some of the greats have taught us through pro-sport.
I read a quote from Nick Saban who is an American head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide who said “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
When I think back to watching England’s emphatic win again New Zealand at the Cricket World Cup, it goes without saying that when the game came down to a super over to decide the winner of the tournament, my heart was in my moth… I wasn’t even playing!
After an incredible batting performance, England clinched victory at the final moments with a run-out. Everything leading up to that moment seemed like chaos to the average spectator. But to the players, it seemed like they were just doing the drills that they had practised day in, day out. “In the chaos of sport, as in life, the process provides us a way. A way to turn something very complex into something simple. Simple does not always mean easy.”
You can only eat an elephant one bite at a time
Although this next part isn’t directly associated with sport, the principles are the same. It’s easy to get caught up with the best intentions. Sometimes these intentions can paralyse us and cause us not to take the first step. Let’s say that you have a difficult project that you need to complete. Don’t focus on the project as a whole but instead, break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to and complete the task to the highest standard. And then, after that, move onto the next thing… In essence, you need to follow the process and not the prize.
In modern-day Algeria, there is a stretch of the Sahara Desert that spans over 500 miles across. More than 1300 people have died in the crossing of that stretch over the years, often due to drifting sands covering the track. Travellers have got lost during the night, and unfortunately, a large number of them have never been found.
The French had a plan to stop people from getting lost. To counter the lack of marking points on the flat planes, they marked the track with black, 55-gallon oil drums, just over 3 miles apart, which was exactly the curvature of the earth.
As a result of this, no matter where you were during the daytime, there was always 2 oil barrels in site, the one that you had just passed and the one 3 miles ahead of you. That’s all you needed to stay on the right course. As a result of this, many people have successfully crossed the biggest desert in the world by simply taking it “one oil barrel at a time.”… Sound familiar?
Tap into the right sort of training
One of the first things that elite athletes realise is that you can’t work in a vacuum. You need to have the right training and coaches around you, just like a person in business needs a mentor or someone that they admire. Developing relationships with people that can enhance your performance and continually point you in the right direction can pay dividends in the future.
What you will find with a lot of businessmen and women is that they tend to go into things on their own. Look at yourself as an athlete and accept that fact that you need an alliance of people that will be able to motivate, support and provide advice wherever necessary. If you need to improve in a particular area at work, have a look and see where you can attain extra coaching or training you need to develop that skill set.
Don’t skip training
Where elite athletes train far more than they compete, people in business are quite often expected to compete relentlessly and often with very little practice. When you don’t hone in and work on your craft enough you leave yourself ill-prepared when the stakes are high. Where there is always enormous attention on numbers and success, there seems to be less focus on building a solid foundation for the process that prepares people to achieve their goals in business.
The options aren’t “win or lose.” They’re “win or learn.” That process includes everything that is going to help you improve such as your training, acquiring a good mentor and having a positive visualisation as to where you want to get to. John Wooden, who is a famous basketball coach in America is famous for not talking about winning or losing, but more about how he envisaged his team to play the game. “Good coaches in sport really do talk about the process, the things that we need to do to focus on to do well. In business, they don’t do that as well,” he explains.
Just complete it
An ex Belgian volleyball player who goes by the name Ryan Kwiatkowski learned the importance of managing his own time. He realised that with his busy work schedule that contained three or four practices per day, travelling to matches and other demands that it was imperative to overcome is procrastination. He now works as a director for his family’s financial services business which manages over $100 million in assets.
“I take a look at the workday in chunks and focus on very specific targeted activities throughout the day,” says Kwiatkowski, “similar to how it would be during practices.”
Win or learn
Recently, Ryan Kwiatkowski team were not successful in a big business pitch. Of course, the news was disappointing to all of them. The volleyball pro drew on his experience as an athlete to rally his team together. The options aren’t “win or lose,” he says. They’re “win or learn.” When it comes down to it, you just have to change your perspective, understand why it did not go to plan and adjust accordingly.
Suck it up and bounce back
When I think back to the Rugby World Cup last November, when you are an International who is playing in the forwards, you constantly take a beating from the other team, overcoming adversity is part of your job. I once remember the Irish Captain Paul O’Connel saying that you just have to continually bounce back.
You’re going to get hit, you know that. You’re also going to have bad days. When it comes down to it, you just have to figure out a way to get back in the game. You have to continually look deep inside yourself and renew your resolve, determination and enthusiasm to have another run for it, even when you don’t feel up to it.
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