Finding That Sweet Spot

November 8, 2022

How business and sport can collaborate, learn from each other, and evolve in new directions

By Antoine Laganiere

You see it just as much in the boardroom as you do in the arena – the desire to overcome a challenge, achieve a goal, get success, build confidence, find a flow state. And people who pursue excellence in business or sport can benefit from the same kind of training and perspectives to get there.

Athletes value and often rely on what are sometimes referred to as traditional attributes – things like resilience, grit and toughness, sacrifice and discipline – to achieve their goals. The will and the ability to withstand the immediate pressures of what’s happening in the moment for deferred reward. For athletes, stress is often tied to very immediate and visceral outcomes – the strategy for the next play, the push for the next goal, or the score at the end of the game. There is an all-or nothing quality to many moments in athletics and the some of the best techniques to prepare for and cope with it are disciplinary, directive, and objective in nature.

Business leaders, on the other hand, are increasingly moving toward a more people focused value system, integrating greater compassion, nurturing, and caring into their toolboxes. And often their views can be more long term – the project that’s slated for the next two quarters, the sale that may not happen for six to twelve months, or the promotion that’s years down the road. Given this longer time horizon, there has been more of a focus on how to help individuals and teams create the more subjective environments for them to succeed. Things like feeling happy, valued and motivated, and ensuring there’s good communication and team understanding, are all being talked about more and increasingly incorporated into business plans.

Adopting a new perspective

But what if business and sport could learn from each other and collaborate, taking in some of the best each has to offer? What if sports could focus not only on team structure and repetition to win the game and have success in a season, but also integrate the softer skills, the human element, and the longer-term view to further support their endeavors? And what if business leaders could be more in the moment and integrate greater resilience and grit to their “game”? 

It is less about adopting one method or the other, and more about seamlessly integrating both because there is certainly a time for each. It can just be a challenge to accomplish masterfully. Incorporating what I call ‘loving toughness’ is where business and sport is heading – and I believe there’s great potential in sharing the best of each domain so that leaders in both fields can use it to enhance performance and create even more admirable teams and individuals.

For example, as a business leader, you can develop greater resilience and commitment by looking to some essential elements from sports culture and values:

  • Get clear direction on where you want to go for yourself and your team. The purpose for athletes and sports teams is very clear – to win – and business leaders can benefit from developing a similarly refined goal or result they’re aiming for. 
  • Develop a collective understanding that each team member is a part of a whole, and that you should have your colleagues’ backs. A sense of loyalty and conformity about what your role is, and how to play that role for the greater good.
  • Create greater alignment with and more of a schedule around your actions and behaviours. For example, establishing regular exercises or physical, mental, and behavioral practices to help you achieve your goals. Athletes train, practice, and work on aspects of their game individually and collectively every day, and this mindset would be a significant asset to business leaders.

Some of these elements might be considered “basic” or “old school”, but that’s true only when done mindlessly: practising just to practice, doing your job because you should, setting goals to tick a box on your performance review. But applying the same behavior with a more enlightened outlook can be a game changer. There is something truly productive in using these approaches at the right moment and with the right mindset, like recognizing the time to sacrifice your own needs or put your personal concerns on hold for the benefit of the team. 

Athletes, on the other hand, can adapt tried and true strategies that business leaders use to help push themselves to the next level:

  • Build consensus on and increase communication and transparency around what individuals and teams need to do to succeed. Don’t just follow because you should, and don’t lead mindlessly. Ensure everyone on the team knows it’s OK to ask questions, learn and develop – individually and as a team.
  • Keep the conversations going and building off one another throughout the season. Don’t let them get lost in the pursuit of short-term results.
  • Invest in understanding your players and yourself to get better results.
  • Take a longer-term, strategic view to success and focus less on hierarchical and traditional approaches that focus only on the next prize.
  • Celebrate and incorporate the uniqueness of each player and coach.

In the end, while each domain has its own unique challenges, often the path to overcoming them can be achieved using many of the same tools and approaches from a seemingly opposite world with different values. And high-performance business leaders and athletes can use them to open their perspectives even further, go beyond what they believe is possible, and give back to the world in new ways. To contribute beyond their roles or their organizations with compassion + resilience. With caring + grit. With loving toughness.

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