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Business performance: what can elite sportspeople teach small businesses?

Steve Backley and Roger Black

Entrepreneurs have always admired the tenacity and guts of sportspeople who are determined to reach their goals — not least because there are undoubtedly some common personality traits shared by the best performers in sports and business.

“Elite sports is a powerful metaphor for business, and there are some striking parallels,” says sports performance psychologist Professor Graham Jones. “Fierce competition, winning by sometimes the smallest margins, achieving goals and targets, establishing long-term and short-term strategies and tactics, hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure and setbacks — those are all key challenges in both worlds.”

So what can sportspeople teach entrepreneurs and small business owners? We ask some of the UK’s leading athletes, sports psychologists and business mentors.

Roger Black

Setting goals

Roger Black MBE“One of the biggest differences between sport and business is the way we set goals. In sport, the goals are clear — you know what day and time the race is, for example. And everything is moving towards that one point where you will be judged.

“Business is much more fluid and there’s rarely just one goal. That can make running a business a bit loose. But having a goal or a fixed deadline is important. In business, it is important to have clarity of outcome and an end in sight.”

Peak performance

“You see a lot of busy fools in business. In sport, busy just doesn’t cut it. In business, people can be busy doing stuff but they’ve got no clarity and it’s not necessarily delivering results. Sports people are driven by performance and businesses need to have that performance culture in order to succeed.”

Roger Black MBE won the Olympic 400-metre Silver medal in 1996. He is a founder of BackleyBlack, the business development consultancy.

Steve Backley

The value of coaches

Steve Backley OBE“Business mentors play an important role in giving people a fresh perspective and they can often see the elephant in the room that the business owner just can’t see. In sport, coaches are quite autocratic, they are there to teach skills and techniques. In business, the process tends to be a little softer, with mentors helping business people to see what their skills and capabilities are and showing them what they could work on. Increasingly in sport, coaches are taking this approach, allowing individuals to flourish and letting them take ownership of the task in hand.”

Expect more

“For me, it’s vital to maintain success and that means you always have to expect more. It’s something I have written about in my book, The Champion In All Of Us. Champions never get complacent, they always expect more. So an athlete will always think they could have performed better — even when they have won.”

Being competitive

“Healthy competition is a good thing and it can bring out the best in us — in sport and in business. But within the working environment, too much competition can have a negative effect. It’s important to get teams to work together in a supportive and productive culture.”

Steve Backley OBE won three medals for javelin throwing at three consecutive Olympic Games. He is a founder of BackleyBlack, the business development consultancy and he is the author of The Champion In All Of Us.

Professor Graham Jones

Keep improving

Professor Graham Jones“Success in sports and business alike relies on the ability to continually move performance to higher levels. What you achieve this year will never be good enough next year. Goals and standards move onward and upward, creating an unrelenting demand to find new means and methods to ensure the delivery of performance curves that can seem tantalisingly, or even impossibly, out of reach.”

Develop a tough mindset

“Elite athletes are not born but made. Obviously there has to be some natural ability but the real key to sustained excellence is the development of mental toughness. The ability to thrive under almost inhuman pressure is perhaps the most defining characteristic of elite athletes. They excel when the heat is turned up. They are able to stay focused on the things that really matter in the face of a multitude of potential distractions. They are able to bounce back from setbacks with a determination and intense desire to succeed. And, most crucially, they are able to maintain their belief in themselves in the most trying circumstances.”

Celebrate success

Elite athletes take time to celebrate their victories. It helps remind them why all the hard work and commitment is worthwhile. At a time when survival is a key priority in so many small businesses, don't forget to spend time celebrating successes, however small they may be.

Performance psychologist Professor Graham Jones is the founder of Top Performance Consulting and author of Thrive On Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough.

Dave Pamah

Harness your emotions

Dave Pamah, motivational speaker“Athletes are told by sports psychologists they need to get in an optimal state of positivity, not get angry, and not get nervous. The idea you must not be nervous is engraved in our culture because of distorted thinking. Public speakers think nerves make them stumble words and athletes think nerves make them choke. I don’t believe this is true.

“One of the greatest golfers, Tiger Woods, said you can’t expect to feel the same on the golf course as you do when watching television. Woods gave himself permission to feel nerves on the first tee. When I competed in athletics I sometimes also played basketball on my active rest days. I discovered my defense in basketball is best when I’m mildly angry. Whereas if I’m frustrated when shooting the ball, I make bad choices like not passing the ball when I should have.”

Dave Pamah is a motivational speaker and the author of Firefighting From Within.

Ian Cochrane

Put in the hard work

Ian Cochrane, business consultantMindset is the concept that a lot of business people tend to gravitate towards. And if you look at the top 50 performers in any discipline, there is very little difference between them — they’ve all done the training. The thing that varies is the top three inches — their minds.

But while mindset is critical, everything else has to be equal. It doesn’t matter how good your mindset is — if you haven’t put in the hard yards and the training then you won’t make it. It can be literally about putting in the hours — the 10,000 hours that top performers of all kinds have dedicated to their field. When you’re talking about these elite performers, they practice, practice, practice. This can be a tough lesson for business people who often want quick fixes. There is no silver bullet.

Don’t settle for good enough

Some business people lack the same level of discipline that successful sports people have in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. When a sports person does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed and they work out how to improve. In business, average performance is often tolerated. The choice is yours — you can carry on doing averagely or try and do better.

Focus under pressure

“In today’s difficult market conditions, it’s easy for business people to think they can’t change anything and to act like victims of circumstance. But we’re all in the same boat. And there are companies that are flying at the moment. Great tennis players like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal execute their basics really well under pressure. That is what businesses can learn from. Sports people who perform well under pressure focus on the task.”

Ian Cochrane is an expert contributor to Marketing Donut and a consultant at Gazing Performance, a leading training organisation that works with businesses and sportspeople, including the New Zealand All Blacks and the Rugby Football Union.