Expert Commentary

How and Why Athletes Make Strong Business Professionals

Competitive athletics teaches us that consistent training, dedication, and commitment yields excellence. But there is more to sports than merely the athletic output. The human dynamics of training and competing on a sports team bears similarities to working on a business team, and the skills learned on the field often translate well to the office.


Leadership at All Levels
November 2019

In addition to engineering, construction, and risk management experience, I am a CrossFit L1 Trainer, USA Triathlon coach, and USA Track and Field coach. As such, I offer some thoughts on the parallels between successful athletes and successful business professionals.

Working with Difficult Teammates

Being part of a team means learning how to work collaboratively with everyone on your team, even when it's hard, even if you don't like the person, even when personalities clash, and even (and especially) if they are the coach (boss)! Many times, the teammates that are the most challenging to interact with are the ones that teach us the most about ourselves.

I'm not suggesting that we endure unnecessarily hostile work environments, but I am suggesting that no matter how difficult someone is to work with, there is something to be gained from figuring out how to negotiate that problematic relationship. Even the strongest rower can't row an eight-person boat alone. Likewise, you can't work without your team.

Working with difficult personalities is an opportunity for self-reflection and self-improvement at the very least. Adopting a team approach and navigating difficult personalities not only benefits the team and the project, but it can also benefit your own personal and professional growth in the long run.

Athletes know how to negotiate challenging relationships.

The Winner's Curse

In sports, the more games you win, the longer your season lasts. Effectively, you're working harder as a result of your success. The same can hold true in business when high performers have the most challenging work thrown at them. Why? Because management has the confidence that they will consistently perform well. Athletes understand that this increase in work and/or responsibility is a mark of their achievement and the senior leadership's confidence in their ability. It's intended as a compliment (albeit in disguise), rather than a punishment.

A construction project manager once complained to me, "I always get the problem projects!" To which I responded by validating that fact, but contradicting the implication: "Yes, you do. It's because you always know how to fix them." Incidentally, athletes also understand that at some point, the long, hard season should end, so you can expect to see this same strength of character as they raise their hand for help if they become overwhelmed.

Athletes know how to pitch in where they are strong.

Dealing with Disappointment

As a runner in my senior year of high school, I attempted to break the school record in the indoor 2-mile. The race was 16 laps, and as I crossed the 15th lap, I was right on target. I decided to see how fast I could really go, so I lengthened my stride and attempted to bound my way through the last 200 meters to a glorious, record-breaking finish. As it turned out, when I changed my stride, I inadvertently slowed my pace, and I missed the mark by 4 seconds. I walked away and thought, "Okay, so next time in that last lap, I will hold the stride, hold the cadence, and hold the pace."

Don't get me wrong, I was disappointed—but I wasn't upset. There's a difference. I looked objectively at what I did wrong, developed a plan to address the problem, and I was excited to try it again. Instead of carrying the disappointment around with me, I carried the lesson I learned from it. (I even wrote my college essay about this experience, instead of the typical self-aggrandizing story.) I never did break the 2-mile record, by the way. But I learned that I can run a 5K at a faster pace than I run the 2-mile, which means I'm a long-distance runner, not a middistance runner. Because of that, I have subsequently enjoyed endurance sports ever since.

Athletes know how to turn disappointment into opportunity.

Positive Attitude

During an interview, I was once asked, "Tell me about a time when you failed." The room went dead, and everyone stared at me, waiting almost too eagerly for my reaction. As the seconds dragged by, I tried to conjure a response. Finally, I spoke the truth, arrogant as I may have sounded: "I can't think of anything I would consider a failure." This is because every situation that came to mind when something didn't go as I planned or intended, I regarded as an opportunity to redirect my efforts.

Similar to the bumpers in a bowling lane, each element of resistance bounced me back into the center to refocus my energy, and always continuing forward on the path. I'm still not sure if they bought that answer or thought it was a line I regurgitated from a book called, "How to answer impossible interview questions," but it really was the truth.

Athletes know that a positive attitude can be a game changer.

Work Ethic and Delayed Gratification

A few years ago, there was a great Under Armour commercial comprised of dramatic images of Michael Phelps working out in a dark, dingy basement gym and some lonely, (seemingly) cold, dark, pool. He was scruffy and tired as he pushed himself to his limits, alone. The caption read, "It's what you do in the dark that puts you in the light. Rule yourself." Athletes are intimately familiar with the self-driven concept of putting in the hard work, dedication, and commitment even (and especially) when no one is there to see or appreciate your dedication and sacrifice. Athletes do know how to rule themselves.

I'm not advocating for overworking. It's not about the hours; it's about the effort. It's about doing the extra thing you know is meaningful in the long run without seeking immediate praise, accolades, or recognition. It's about having a passion and an intensity in your work that comes from your inner sense of purpose, rather than a bonus or award. It's about other things you do in "the dark," such as mentoring younger professionals, making connections for others that may not benefit you, or volunteering your talent, time, and expertise to causes that pay these things forward rather than back. The extra mile you choose to run "in the dark" that bears no immediate gratification but pays dividends in the aggregate is what puts you in the light.

Athletes know how to persevere to succeed.

Appreciating Relative Excellence, aka Strengthening Our Strengths

Humans have innate strengths and weaknesses. By nature, we tend to enjoy the things we're proficient at and avoid the things we're not as good at. As a runner turned triathlete, I enjoy the bike and the run portions of a triathlon, but I absolutely loathe the swim. Why? Because it's my weakest sport, and I really don't like swimming. Or … is it my weakest sport because I don't like it, and I hardly practice?

Henry Ford is famous for quoting, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't—you're right!" The mental component of training and competing is an enormous part of the result. In fact, we make greater gains by strengthening our strengths than strengthening our weaknesses because of the positive energy associated with focusing on the thing we feel powerful doing versus the negative energy of doing the thing we struggle with. Positive energy empowers us to work harder, whereas the mere act of thinking about swimming inherently makes me feel weak. It's a self-feeding cycle.

I am seeing the business world beginning to notice the power of strengthening one's strengths as well. About 10 years ago, I engaged in a slew of personality and perspective assessments in an attempt to identify what I need to work on to get to the next level professionally. It was pretty demoralizing if I'm being honest. However, I just recently provided feedback for someone else's professional development program, and all I was asked to contribute were stories that exemplify this person's strengths and natural aptitudes. Cultivating leaders by magnifying their natural strengths is such a powerful way to develop human potential.

If you have a team full of similarly experienced and educated professionals, to charge them all with the same duties and the same professional growth path is a bit foolish. Find out their natural aptitudes, and just as in sport, place each player in the position they play best. If Bob hits a home run every time he interacts with clients, assign him more client-facing interactions and consider redelegating some of his paperwork. If Suzy knocks it out of the park when she's crunching numbers, task her with developing new ways to leverage the figures and spot business opportunities through the data. You wouldn't put a star pitcher behind home plate and tell him to hone his terrible catching skills, would you? Play your team to their strengths, both for their benefit and the team's.

Conclusion

Fantasy teams aren't just for sports. When you're the coach, you have the playbook, and you know your players. Use strategy and tactics to run the plays that elevate the athletes and motivate them to a collaborative win. As you think about recruiting the next player on your business all-star team, consider hiring an athlete. Their team-oriented mindset comes standard-issue with strong elements of focus, motivation, and resilience. They might just be the kicker you need to score that tie-breaking field goal.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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