Going for 'the Gold': What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Athletes
With the 2016 Summer Olympics so recently past, some of us may be thinking how the shelf life of an athlete is a relatively short one, compared to that of any other career. Athletes' prime years are spent training their minds and bodies to perform at high levels, but when the spotlight stops shining, what’s next for them? we wonder.
In fact, for many retired athletes, entrepreneurism is the logical next step.
And that makes sense, because athletics and entrepreneurism are parallel paths. Both require high levels of resilience, perseverance and the ability to make tough decisions, sometimes on the spot. When the bright lights on the field dim, the boardroom lights come on.
We’re all familiar with the success heavyweight champ George Foreman had as an entrepreneur: The George Foreman Grill became one of the best-selling infomercial products of all time. Tennis star Maria Sharapova launched her own candy line, Sugarpova. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach turned to real estate after his retirement from football.
More examples? Boxer Oscar de la Hoya started a promotional company, and seven-time Grand Slam singles champ Venus Williams launched a clothing line and interior design company, V Starr Interiors. These are only a few of the many athletes who have added entrepreneur to their already impressive resumes.
While you don’t have to be an athlete (or even merely athletic) to be a successful entrepreneur, you do need the following traits to "win the gold."
1. Mental toughness
Mental toughness is the ability to endure high levels of pressure while still performing at peak efficiency. Top athletes are successful because they can focus on the end goal and block out distractions. If, like me, you’ve wondered how a basketball player is able to consistently hit free throws when there are 20,000 people booing him (or her), the answer is that the player simply focuses on the basket (the end goal), not the surrounding noise.
That requires a high level of focus; and, similarly, as an entrepreneur, you must be able to focus on what’s important to grow your business, while ignoring outside distractions.
Recently, I interviewed former tennis coach-turned-corporate coach, Alan Fine, on my show, Executive Perspectives. Fine commented that both athletes and entrepreneurs, as high performers, choose to focus on what they need to pay attention to. They focus on hitting the ball, or making the basket or closing the next deal, instead of the noise directed at them.
This is what I call "killing squirrels," meaning basically shutting off the voices in your head (and the external ones) that plant that seed of doubt telling you you can’t do something or tossing out reasons why you shouldn't. Don’t listen to those voices.
2. Clearly defined goals
An effective coach should also be a great communicator, with the ability to convey the requisite goals to the rest of the team, clearly and succinctly. As an entrepreneur, you also have deadlines and promises (to clients, not fans) that you need to meet, and exceed, in order to put your team in a position to win the game.
It is imperative, then, that everyone on your team be on the same page about what the goals are: If one player/staffer is rowing in a different direction from the rest of the team, you’re not going to achieve them.
As a leader, make it a priority to understand your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Not everyone on your team will have a high shooting percentage, and not everyone will be a great defender. These individuals may have different skill levels, but if they’re all clear on what the end goal is, that clarity will pay off in the end.
3. Strategic thinking
Professional and Olympic athletes spend a lot of time putting their mind and bodies through rigorous workouts, to perform at the highest level. One of the skills they develop is the ability to make decisions quickly and strategically.
Sometimes, as an entrepreneur, you too lack the time to weigh the pros and cons of every decision; you simply must pull the trigger. You take the shot, you swing for the fences, you add one more tumble to your routine with the confidence that you’re making the right decision. And you hope for the best. Will every decision pay off? No. But if you start second-guessing yourself at every turn, you’ll lose valuable time.
In basketball, the defense often dictates the type of offense it will run. In business, if you’re trying to start, or grow, your organization, you must be constanty observing what goes on around you. Your powers of observation and ability to pivot on a dime will be what wins you the game and moves your business strategy forward.
4. Not afraid to fail
“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” became a pop culture catchphrase, thanks to Jim McKay and the TV show Wide World of Sports. Those words exemplify the world of an athlete -- and of an entrepreneur, too.
There isn’t a single living person, in fact, that hasn’t fallen flat on his or her face at least once, and if someone denies this, that's a lie. When athletes fail, they do so in front of thousands of people and sometimes, on the world's biggest stage, the Olympics! There’s no higher level of pressure than performing for your country in front of the entire world. But athletes are conditioned not to fear failing, despite the high risks.
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once wisely said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” And those are words to live by for any hockey player or entrepreneur, equally.
There’s always a risk of failure when you start a business, but the payoff should be larger than your fear. You will lose sometimes; that’s a given, but you must learn how to bounce back and not dwell on that failure. If anything, it should motivate you to get better. If Michael Jordan had quit basketball every time he missed a critical shot (or when he got cut from the team), how different would the NBA landscape be today? Bouncing back from a loss is the key to success.
In the end, competition isn’t a motivator for everyone, and that’s okay. But I’m a firm believer in the spirit of competition. It’s not about crushing your opponent (or business competitor), it’s about being the best athlete/entrepreneur you can be every single time.
So, if you’re still on the fence about becoming an entrepreneur, think of your favorite professional athletes. Imagine the path that took them to where they are now. Then, imagine that path for you. Imagine it’s you running that race, making the shot, going for that amazing gymnastics routine.
If you can see yourself at the top step of that medal winners' podium, go out and do it. You won’t win the gold if you don’t at least try.