5 min read

What sport taught me about business

David M. Brear

Sports people make better business people. There, I said it. I’ve said it before so you shouldn't be too surprised at this point but I honestly believe in this statement.

I never wanted to be a business person. I don't really do well sitting still for so long at a desk and naturally I’m “too” competitive for a business context and anyone says otherwise is wrong…wrong, I tell you!

I firmly believe that if you really want to understand business then nothing will teach you better than playing team sports at a young age, but reading this blog is a good alternative!

Having thought about it, there are eight main things I think we can learn from sports to make our businesses more impactful and effective and these are:

1. Talent Not Titles

Sports are fundamentally about people, whether that's the players, the manager, support staff or even the fans. You need to know what makes them tick, understand how to get the best out of your teammates, how to amp the crowd, and how to out-manoeuvre the opposition. You also need all of these skills to succeed in business to a great level.

In business, too much focus is placed on titles instead of talent. Managers matter, but depending on the situation an engineer or a designer is far more important than any CEO in the same way that a star point guard is more important than the manager on the NBA court as the game clock ticks down.

In sports, a good manager sets up the team for success. When the game is on, they’re not on the field but they use their presence to push players to be their best. To take chances and perform under pressure, have confidence and have a little swagger to boot.

2. Micro Motivation

This is fundamental for me. Whether in training or just in day to day life a manager’s objective is singular, to get the best out of the player that they have at their disposal.

Sports managers have to create a narrative, a mentality, build confidence, help people understand their strengths and weaknesses and move people towards victory over their competition. They motivate their team in training, at the end of a hard game. When they win or when they lose. Especially when they lose.

Businesses have been conditioned to not know how to do this, they commit to a single vision early and refuse to pivot. Most don't look close enough at their competition and very, very few reinforce their mission and objectives frequently enough. That’s not their fault. It’s endemic to the culture they’re living in.

I like to leave meetings feeling motivated and for others to have that instilled in them as well. We are going to do something, change something or make something happen.

3. Great Decision Making

When you’re playing sports, delaying decisions or deferring them to managers is guaranteed to make you lose. The same is true in business, but people don't recognise this or feel the impact so visibly. The capability to make a decision and stick to it defines good players. Deferring is bad for the team, bad for motivation and bad for the company.

That doesn’t mean managers are useless, far from it. But they need to prove their value just as much as the players. Managers, for me, really need to be player-managers, they need to be in the thick of it with their team members and contributing what they can, not just overseeing work. That’s how managers can mould teams effectively, teaching others by showing them how it’s done.

What makes a good player is someone who can perform under pressure. Someone who, when faced with potentially damaging their reputation by taking a calculated risk, takes it because they know the chances of it paying off are high enough to be worth it, or conversely does not if it won’t.

Identifying those people is key to any business. Finding the ones whose passion gets them up in the morning, whose need to compete drives them rather than just going through the motions and who can be infectious for the rest of the team are critical to creating the right culture.

4. No I In Team

This trope is well worn for a reason. Team sports people know how to work collaboratively in order to be successful. They know when to shoot and when to pass and how making opportunities for your team members is a major part of being part of a team.

In many organisations, there isn't a lot of team in the team. Incentives, promotions, buck-passing and governance, and structural issues all lead to a culture that doesn't promote teamwork in a true sense of its potential.

5. Communication Is Everything

This one seems obvious but communication isn’t just about you and your team, and it really isn't just about words and speech. It’s about awareness and reading situations, people, small details and using them to advance your purpose.

Kinaesthesia of the body and mind, plus the self-awareness of the impact you have on others isn't something that many are able to translate well into business.

Communication in big companies is not always there to advance the situation or move forwards, but cover people’s ass avoiding responsibility rather than how to move fast and make decisions.

6. Fail Often; Fail Fast

No-one has ever succeeded without failing first and falling a lot for that matter. Playing basketball, I missed a million shots trying to get better, both in practice and in games, but I never lost confidence in taking the next shot. I believed in myself and my ability.

If you chucked an idea every time it didn’t work on the first attempt you’d spend 30 years without significant development, which is what has happened to a lot of firms. Iterating is vital to creating a product that’ll be loved by customers.

Sometimes they’ll miss the shot. And that’s okay, the players you want will take responsibility for that failure and use it as a learning experience to develop and grow. That’s the benefit of failing fast and small.

7. Success Through Sacrifice

This one might not be popular but I believe in it. Success requires some sacrifice. Before you rush to kill a goat, let me explain.

Sports people understand that both their personal and their team's objectives require efforts beyond the norm. Whether in training or in the thick of the game, if you want the returns then you have to invest the time and effort that most are unwilling to commit.

For me, sports are the last place where such dedication to sacrifice is accepted because the results of not doing so are clearly linked to the outcomes of the organisation. One rower in the boat not playing their role or learning their trade will clearly throw off the whole team, but equally so will neglecting your diet or mental state.

If you want to get ahead in business or while starting your own company this is not a 9-5 type scenario. That is what is expected. If you want to get the returns that most don't then you need to work both hard and smart like most won't.

8. Form Is Temporary

In business, the lack of transparency of who is and who isn't pulling their weight isn’t so clear all of the time both generally, but also to decision makers. The end result is harder to define in many cases and the processes around performance management allow the best to leave an organisation with those who remain are there for a reason.

Netflix has an interesting saying in their culture pack: “an adequate performance earns a generous severance package” which hammers home the point pretty well for me.

Past performance in sports allows people to predict the future well but doesn’t guarantee success. In many large organisations, the motivation to work hard at solving a problem is often lacking, with many repeating the same actions and using the same approaches that are ineffective, wasting millions of pounds to achieve little.

That star striker whose form dips will very quickly find themselves on the bench.

So…

So there you have it. At 11:FS we are a high-performing group of passionate people who communicate like crazy, fail small and often, celebrate each other's victories but most of all are much more productive as a team than we would be as individuals.

To succeed in sport or business, talent just isn't enough. It takes dedication, self-awareness, motivation, passion, perseverance and most of all practice.

Go practice.

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 David M. Brear
About the author

David M. Brear

David is the CEO of 11:FS and since his dream of being a sportsperson was crushed (along with the ligaments in his knee!) and he had to get a proper job, he has worked in pretty much every angle of financial services industry but never lost that competitive desire to win.

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