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July 12, 2018

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes, in Business and Life

Lucy Bishop

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©© GettyImages/PaulBradbury

I'm not particularly sporty. I mean, I like the occasional swim and I’m not too bad at crazy golf. And I can bowl without the side ramps up! But, despite my indifference, I'm unable to avoid the optimistic hysteria that sweeps my nation (U.K.) every time one of our homegrown sports stars or teams plays on an international stage.

That's right. I, too, have been on the edge of my seat watching England play in the soccer World Cup in Russia. The same is true of the Olympics. Every four years, when the Games start, I think, "So what?" But a few days in, I'm hooked!

After all, who can fail to be inspired by the pageantry, the camaraderie, the heart-wrenching losses, the close calls, and the amazing against-all-odds stories? But, beyond this, how does sport impact us? And are there any lessons we can learn from it that we can apply in business, or in our careers? 

The Link Between Sports and Business

For many people, sports means entertainment, pure and simple. And it has no place in business.

But this view ignores the many positive business lessons that sports can teach us. Leadership, motivation, teamwork, communication, goal-setting, strategy, and stress management, for example.

In fact, many major sports stars have made the successful leap to business. And many of them are likely driven by the special range of skills that they developed during their sporting careers.

Take Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Do you know him best as the famous movie star, or as the champion pro-wrestler? Or, how about Magic Johnson? Arguably one of the best basketball players of all time, he now spends his time investing in several well-known franchises, including Starbucks, Burger King and T.G.I. Friday's.

Tennis stars Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams have reputations for success both on and off the court. Sharapova, for instance, has her own candy business, Sugarpova, which she launched in 2012. The company continues to turn a profit and is expected to triple its revenue to $20m in 2018. Meanwhile, Venus Williams is CEO of not one, but two companies: the athletic apparel brand EleVen, and interior design company, V Starr Interiors.

What Leadership and Business Skills Can We Learn From Sports?

Even the least athletic of us can think of at least one sports star whose qualities we'd like to emulate in our own lives.

For me, it's 23-times Grand Slam winner, Serena Williams. She's had to overcome racial prejudice and ill health to get to where she is today. But, while I admire her fierce determination and persistence, it's her skill at balancing work and family that I find the most impressive. Since she had her first child in 2017, she is living proof that a woman really can "have it all." She's not "just" a mom, she's also (arguably) the greatest female tennis player of all time.

I wanted to find out if there are any other transferable skills in sports that we can use in our careers. So, I asked my Mind Tools colleagues about their favorite sports stars, and what they had learned from them.

Managing Stress and Goal-Setting

The ability to manage stress, and to stay calm under pressure, undoubtedly comes in handy when you're a top sports star. But these are skills that we can apply in everyday life, too.

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes in Business and Life
Kimi Raikkonen's ability to stay calm under pressure has earned him the nickname "The Ice Man."

CRO Executive, Fay Dawson, says that women's marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe, inspires her to manage stress through running. "I try to use my time running to ease the week's stresses, and to clear my mind. I often find I run best when I'm like this, as I haven't got hundreds of things flying around my brain!"

Fay also explains how Radcliffe's method of goal-setting helps her to manage expectations. "You can't expect to knock an hour off a personal best in a month with little training. Start with a few minutes and gradually increase it – and enjoy the small victories along the way. This doesn't just apply to running. Setting yourself small goals in life can make those big dreams more achievable."

Sales Manager, Patrick Burns, admires Formula One (F1) racing driver Kimi Raikonnen's ability to "rise above" the stresses of his profession. "He's shown that you don't have to adopt an over-the-top, bragging personality to be successful," Patrick says. "He's taught me that you don't need to get involved in politics and gossip. He plays everything with a 'straight bat.'"

Perseverance and Resilience

Many people were inspired by the sheer determination that goes into achieving sporting success. After all, you'll unlikely get anywhere if you fail to try, try, try again!

Interestingly, many of my colleagues draw their inspiration from the world of motorsports, where endurance and stamina are often key to winning!

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes in Business and Life
Felipe Massa started his career in go-karting at the age of eight.

Customer Support Executive, Jaye O'Farrell, takes his cue from Brazilian F1 star, Felipe Massa. Jaye says, "When I'm faced with a challenging situation, or something that seems insurmountable, I think about Felipe's perseverance. I don't believe in a 'no-win' situation. His work ethic has taught me that you can always find a way. So, keep pushing, keep trying, and be adaptable."

Sarah Reed, Coordinator in People & Culture, draws inspiration from the motorcycle road racers who compete in the Isle of Man TT. "Every rider that competes in the TT has such incredible skill, determination, and bravery. Ian Hutchinson, for instance, had a crash which nearly resulted in having his leg amputated, but he continues to race. And Michael Dunlop lost both his father and uncle through racing, but he continues to push himself in this unforgiving sport."

She explains how their "true grit" has influenced her own actions. "Both of these people have had to overcome extraordinary personal challenges. This has helped me to put my day-to-day challenges and problems into perspective, and to accept that life can throw 'big spanners' at you from time to time. But, when it does, you have to just take the blow and deal with it. There's no point whinging or whining. Sometimes your only choice is to sort it out and move on."

Determination and Commitment

Senior Writer, Steven Edwards, cites another racing driver, Nigel Mansell, as his sporting role model. "For me, Mansell was the most entertaining driver of his generation. He would wrestle with his cars, overtake other drivers outrageously, and fight where others would flinch. I learned from Mansell that if you want to achieve something badly enough, and you keep working at it, you can do it. His stubborn example encourages me to keep plugging away when something matters, even when the odds seem stacked against me."

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes in Business and Life
Nigel Mansell's daring driving saw him achieve 31 wins – and 32 crashes – during his career.

Content Editor, Ed Pearcey, cites cricket legend Ian Botham's unending commitment as a quality he aspires to. "His win against Australia at Headingley in 1981 was a masterclass in total concentration, and sheer, pig-headed determination. He's made me more determined and taught me not to pay attention to distractions or naysayers."

For New Business Sales Executive, Toby Lear, however, it's Swiss tennis star and 20-times Grand Slam winner, Roger Federer, who best embodies commitment and determination. "His passion and relentlessness in professional tennis has helped him to have one of the longest careers in the sport, spanning 20 years. And he's still going strong. He's taught me to never give up!"

Hope and Positivity

Sometimes, a positive mental attitude is the one thing that sets you apart from the competition.

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes in Business and Life
Lewis Hamilton is statistically the most successful British F1 driver, with four World Championship titles and 65 race victories.

Facing down obstacles and setbacks with a smile is a hard skill to master. But it's one that can help you to meet your goals, no matter how hard they are, or how long it takes.

Administrator, Catherine Donoghue, is a big fan of Lewis Hamilton for precisely this reason. The four-time F1 world champion "reinforces a certain hopeful positivity that I like to express in my everyday life," she explains. "If a poor kid from Stevenage can succeed at one of the toughest and most elitist sports in the world, then who knows what's possible?"

What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes in Business and Life
Dame Kelly Holmes was 34 when she won gold medals in the 800m and 1500m races at the Olympic Games in Athens.

Senior Content Editor, Charlie Swift, sees similar qualities in two of his favorite athletes – double Olympic gold medalist, Dame Kelly Holmes, and world champion rower, Dame Katherine Grainger. "They both had dreams of Olympic gold that they finally achieved, but only after years and years of effort and setbacks (injury and illness in Holmes's case, and repeated near misses in Grainger's). I'm still surprised and awestruck by their hope and determination, and their ability not to be swayed from striving, despite the odds and the critics, toward their goals."

Both Holmes and Grainger were considered "old" when they finally achieved their dreams of Olympic gold. As Charlie continues, "They've shown me that your dreams are still reachable, no matter your age! They both exude the joy of life and living, and they want other people to experience it for themselves. Their positivity is infectious and inspirational. They inspire me to keep moving forward, whatever it takes – and to celebrate even the small milestones."


Who are your favorite sporting heroes? How do they inspire you? And what lessons have they taught you that you've applied in your life and career? Share your story, below.

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6 comments on “What We Can Learn From Our Sports Heroes, in Business and Life”

  1. Many thanks for a great post and Fabulous Read. I really enjoyed how you laid it all out and some great names there who I also love. -- Barry Hall.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Barry. There are indeed many lessons and strategies from the sporting world that can be adopted in the business world. Which sports persons do you admire the most and what quality or characteristic stands out for you?

  2. Very very interesting read . It has inspired me . Great learnings . I think there are many lessons to be gained from the sporting world including working as a team . Thank you Sarah

    1. Thank you Sarah and glad to hear that you found the article interesting and inspiring. Indeed teams, whether they are on the sports field or in the office, can use the same strategies to achieve peak levels of performance.

  3. In my view, learn from several inspiring idols, not just one. Else you force yourself into becoming a clone rather than an unique multi-skilled individual able to deal with, and most of all, one who is able to create change.
    Be fast like Bolt.
    Persistent like Tiger Woods.
    Daring like Senna.
    Adaptive like Federer.
    Forgiving like Madiba.
    Creative like Elon Musk.
    Intuitive like Darwin.
    Curious like Edison.
    Thorrough like a chess grandmaster.
    Intuitive like Branson.
    Enduring like Federer.
    Inspirational like Churchill.
    Tender like Mother Theresa.
    Etc etc

    1. Thanks Nico for sharing all that. I like the idea of adopting elements from many different people to help inspire, motivate and achieve our goals. We can not expect all things from just one person so better to take different aspects from many people to help us!

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