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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 the smallest margins, establishing strategies and tactics to achieve goals, hard work, recovering from 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.

“Business is much more fluid and there’s rarely just one goal. But setting a goal or a fixed deadline is important to give clarity of outcome and an end in sight.”

Peak performance

“In business, people can be busy doing stuff but often they’ve got no clarity and they're 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 - they can often see the elephant in the room. In sport, coaches are there to teach skills and techniques. In business, mentors help business people recognise their skills and capabilities and show them what they could work on. This allows individuals to flourish and take ownership of the task in hand.”

Expect more

“For me, it’s vital to maintain success and that means you should always expect more. Champions never get complacent. So an athlete will always think they could have performed better — even when they have won.”

Be 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 improve performance. What you achieve this year will not be good enough next year. This creates an unrelenting demand to find new means and methods to ensure success.”

Develop a tough mindset

“Elite athletes are not born but made. Obviously there has to be some natural ability but the real key is the development of mental toughness. The ability to thrive under intense pressure is perhaps the most defining characteristic of elite athletes. They are able to stay focused on the things that matter. And, most crucially, they are able to maintain belief in themselves and bounce back from setbacks.”

Celebrate success

"Elite athletes take time to celebrate their victories. It reminds them why all the hard work and commitment is worthwhile. Small businesses should not 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. The idea you must not be nervous is engraved in our culture. 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.”

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

Ian Cochrane

Put in the hard work

Ian Cochrane, business consultant"Mindset 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 between them. The thing that varies is their mindset.

"But while mindset is critical, it means nothing if you haven’t put in the hard work. Elite performers practice, practice, practice. They know there is no silver bullet. This can be a tough lesson for business people who often want quick fixes."

Don’t settle for good enough

"Some business people lack discipline and they tolerate sub-optimal performance. When a sports person does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed and they work out how to improve. In business, you can carry on doing averagely or you can try to do better."

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.

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