Home What Business Leaders Can Learn from Professional Sports

What Business Leaders Can Learn from Professional Sports

While leading a business doesn’t indicate anything about one’s athleticism, both athletes and entrepreneurs draw from a similar set of skills in order to achieve the same end: a cohesive, peak-performance team.

Much of what athletes accomplish on the field has more to do with their mindset than bodies. Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of athletes — including members of the Miami Dolphins — to help develop focus, mentally sharpen, and read the lightning-fast signals their bodies send to their brains. Peak performance coaching has become a popular way for pro sports teams to improve their team’s drive — both individually and within groups — before problems crop up.

As it turns out, businesses can do the same. There are several ways leaders can approach their teams so their teams are aligned, functioning at their best and accomplishing set goals.  

1. Paint a picture that inspires unity.

At a time when 80 percent of businesses aren’t tracking their goals and — unsurprisingly — a nearly equal 77 percent haven’t achieved their company visions, it pays to articulate an organization’s goals and keep them at the top of everyone’s mind. Unifying a team around a common goal can be exceedingly difficult, but it’s paramount to success. Whether chasing a Super Bowl ring or a bigger share of the marketplace, it’s a leader’s responsibility to paint a picture of success that’s so compelling that everyone wants to burn rubber to make it happen.

While some believe an entire company needs to come to a consensus before rallying behind a particular goal, those in the sports world would disagree. Coaches and players understand that they’re all there to win a championship, but the head coach determines the content of the playbook they follow in order to make that happen.

Business leaders can adopt the same mentality, taking feedback when necessary and appropriate, but ultimately leading the team toward a unifying goal and, subsequently, supporting team members in their efforts to reach it. Painting a picture that provides context for why that goal matters goes a long way in helping others visualize their role within the larger team landscape and setting the tone for true collaboration.  

2. Make sure every role on the team serves a purpose for the whole.

One of the more interesting components to football is just how diverse the individual players are across the team, namely in terms of role and physicality. For example, a wide receiver has a vastly different skill set than a punter — one is relied upon for his agility and remarkably sticky fingers, while the other has a highly specialized ability to keep a ball suspended in air with a tap of his foot.

While they have different natural — and trained — abilities to fill that role and, in most cases, never play on the field at the same time, they’re nonetheless unified by the same guiding principles: train hard, play harder, winner takes all. When empowered to play to their strengths within their given role and under a larger unifying goal, magic starts to happen; we start to see a true team form.  

Interestingly, Gallup’s “State of the American Workforce” report determined that playing up strengths, rather than trying to shore up weaknesses, made teams nearly 13 percent more productive. Those who use their strengths on a daily basis are six times more likely to be engaged — and retained. It comes as no surprise that in order to gain those same benefits seen on the football field, business leaders must assess their team members’ strengths to determine how they can work in concert with others with the greater mission in view.

Unlike in football, however, when it’s often obvious where a player’s strength lies, it’s not always obvious what a team member’s true strength is and how it can be leveraged in a business setting — sometimes, their strengths can actually be best utilized outside the scope of their designated role. For example, a graphic designer might have valuable insights in developing new product designs and packaging traditionally handled by the R&D team, or a data entry specialist with a knack for processes may be able to find a way to streamline an existing process for another team. It’s important to remember that building a successful organization is dependent upon, among other things, a leader’s ability to recognize talent when and wherever she sees it.

3. Cultivate a growth mindset among your teammates.

I’m a big believer in the growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe their skills were given to them at birth, and they have a finite amount of talent: They’re either good at something or they’re not. Growth-oriented people, however, believe that they can hone the skills they already possess as well as acquire and develop new skills and abilities.

Similar to the student who never studies for tests because of the “I either know it or I don’t” mindset, many players who are natural-born athletes exhibit similar attitudes. If they’re not good at a certain skill on the first try, they default to their original, seemingly more successful tactics or give up trying the new skill altogether. But as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots has proven, that’s not how players become successful. Well-known for his will-over-skill mindset, he emphasizes his strengths and knows that practice transforms his adequate natural skills into honed, unbeatable  techniques — and, unsurprisingly, it’s brought him more Super Bowl rings than any other quarterback. He isn’t afraid to fail in a relatively safe environment if it means he increases his chances to succeed when and where it matters.

A growth mindset encourages people to try new things and risk failure when appropriate. Businesses that focus on perfection automatically inhibit their people from realizing their own, and ultimately the company’s, potential — they’ll never try because they’re afraid to fail. The end result of stifled efforts, of course, is a stagnant company. Rewarding new attempts, regardless of their outcome, develops outlets for innovative thinking and empowers people to take charge, moving their team past a fixed mindset.

By developing a strong unit that comes together under a common goal, even when things aren’t easy, leaders and organizations can accomplish just about anything — whether it’s winning a championship or becoming their industry’s top performer.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Curt Cronin

A former Navy SEAL, Curt Cronin is the co-founder and CEO of Ridgeline Partners, where he capitalizes on his combined experiences and lessons from the military, academic, and business worlds to advise numerous organizations, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to niche startups, on how to catalyze an exponential culture of execution and innovation.

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