Lessons learned from the sports field and how I applied these to the boardroom

Sports terminology is so common in the business world that it often veers into cliché. Phrases once reserved for the sports field, including “keep your eye on the ball”, “industry heavyweight” and “moving the goalposts,” have become so ingrained in common dialogue that they’ve lost much of their impact. 

But that doesn’t mean that the world of business can’t learn anything from the world of sport. I should know; having been a professional footballer for some years, I’ve some experience of both areas, and there is – beyond clichés – some overlap, particularly if you’re running a company yourself. 

If you’re a new entrepreneur – or a veteran – looking to overcome some of the challenges you typically face when running a business, here are a few tips I have learned along the way. 

(1) Be prepared 

As is the case in any team sport, hours, days, weeks, and months of preparation are done on an individual basis – and even more time is spent assembling those individuals into an effective team. Formations; player roles; training schedules they’re all established well in advance of any given match, and with great precision.

Simultaneously, they need to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances on the fly. 

This precision and adaptability can be easily applied to the world of business. Try to mitigate the impact of the unforeseeable by being as prepared as you can be for everything. If a candidate has an interview, advise them on every little detail to ensure the interview is a success. If a consultant has a new business call coming up, they will have pre-set greetings and talking points to work with – and it will, of course, be timed to perfection. Chance will always cause things to change from time to time, but if you’re sufficiently prepared, it will never cause catastrophe. 

(2) Build a team, not a collection of individuals 

Frequently, after scoring some spectacular – and seemingly, entirely individual – effort, Manchester city striker Sergio Aguero will take time to credit his teammates in the post-match interview. He’s not just being polite. True, he may have danced past five players before firing it into the net from 30 yards. But he has the support of the team around him that facilitates this success. Even the best players in the world will struggle to play well and make a difference without a strong team behind them. 

What most footballers know is that the responsibility for every goal – scored or conceded – ultimately lies with the team, and building one that works well together is critical. Businesses should work to foster a similar atmosphere; one where new hires and current staff feel like they’re part of something bigger. Directly or indirectly, the team is behind every move, and every constituent member deserves credit for success. 

(3) Be disciplined

Nothing is accomplished without sacrifice. Business and sport are akin in many ways, but the biggest similarity is the toll they can take on your personal life and mental resilience. If you want something sufficiently, you will have to work for it. You will have to do things you do not particularly want to do on a daily basis, and you will have to give up things that you enjoy.

It will be frustrating, and the biggest benefit I had from my career in sport was that I was used to it. Dedication, self-discipline, hard work: these were my bread and butter, so transitioning to a 4am-8pm working schedule full of setbacks, exasperation and false dawns felt oddly familiar. 

Many won’t have the same advantage. But embracing the discomfort, even when things seem impossible, learning from your errors and building a strong team around you, it will be worth it in the end.

Stephen Stott is CEO of Stott and May.

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