What Competitive Sports Taught Me About Running a Business

What Competitive Sports Taught Me About Running a Business
Image credit: Sangudo | Flickr

Succeeding in competitive sports requires laser-sharp focus, hard work and unwavering discipline. The same can be said of running a multi-million dollar company. And that’s why, despite the fact that my days as a swimmer at Stanford University are behind me, I continue to apply the skills I learned then on a daily basis as the CEO of Revel Systems.

Whether you participate in sports or prefer to watch them on TV, you’ll find that the same principles playing out on the court, on the field or in the ring apply to business strategy. If you're a CEO or manager who aims to win, make the following characteristics of a standout athlete part of your game plan.

Team player

Few people reach the top alone. Competitive athletes understand the value of working as a team, where each person plays an important role. During a swim race, I practiced intense focus to accomplish independent goals while knowing when to hand off the baton to my teammates.

As an entrepreneur, it’s critical for me to take a hands-on approach and understand how my business runs from every aspect. I take pride in being able to enter any department in the company -- whether it’s sales, finance or customer support -- and perform any task firsthand. But a leader must also know when to hand off the baton. I’m well aware of my team’s strengths, and I delegate projects that challenge them to excel and improve. Revel Systems’s unparalleled growth over the past four years has only been possible because of this high level of collaboration.

Related: Startups Born from a Passion for Sports

Tough competitor

The swim team at Stanford was headed by a four-time Olympic swim coach. Four Olympians competed on our team. It goes without saying that expectations were high, and the competition was intense. I constantly pushed myself to outperform the best of the best.

Similarly, standing out is tantamount to being a profitable company in the highly competitive tech industry. By separating my product from that of my competitors with a point of sale system that easily integrates into whatever the next-generation mobile payment option might be, I established myself as an industry leader.

Adrenaline junkie

Every entrepreneur faces tough challenges on a daily basis. To succeed in this environment, excelling at what you do is not enough. Passion is necessary to continue rising to the challenges and setting the bar higher.

With passion comes a strong work ethic and a consistent supply of adrenaline. These have fueled me through long work days spent creating a product from scratch, bringing the product to market and growing the company exponentially to match customer demand.

As a former athlete, this adrenaline rush isn't anything new. I’ve compared swimming competitively to seeing life on steroids in the figurative sense, with so much happening at intense levels in small amounts of time. Every small step forward at Revel Systems brings me back to the sound of my teammates cheering behind me, the rush of adrenaline as I heard the pistol sound  and the feel of those winning strokes slicing through the water.

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Workhorse

With swimming, the results are black and white: You either finish within the time set or you don’t. Business, too, is results-driven. Though I’ve earned my place as a young, female CEO in a space dominated by men and execs with twice my experience, I refuse to encourage gimmicks surrounding my image. I stand behind the values of skill, merit and hard work.

Within the company, I foster a results-oriented environment with minimal politics. I reward hard work and like to promote from within. Anyone who begins in the lower ranks has the potential to move up if they exhibit a strong work ethic that fosters a team spirit and produces the desired results.

Cool head

Sports prepared me for the reality of dealing with uncertainty. As a competitive swimmer, I trained constantly, spending five hours a day in the pool -- all for a two-minute race. In spite of all that hard work, you never knew what would happen when race day came. 

If you need to see the future in a crystal ball, running a business is not for you. No matter how hard I work, I operate Revel Systems with the knowledge that there are no guarantees. But I’ve learned that working hard and with passion, channeling your adrenaline and managing your emotions in the face of stress and uncertainty are important tools -- both in business and in life.

Related: Winning Startup Tips From a Champion