Real Lessons from the World of Sport


Lessons from sport

Sports performers and their teams are often lauded for their success and mainly for their wins – witness the adulation afforded to Olympians like Dame Kelly Holmes and Sir Chris Hoy, or most recently the Sky cycling team and Chris Froome in Le Tour.

Added on 13 August 2015 by John Neal

The business world is very keen to understand what it takes to succeed and whether there is any best practice they can transfer into their own organisations. But it’s important to recognise that not all in the garden is always rosy. Sports success can be short-lived and what worked one day may just as well fail the next – just ask the England cricketers!

The sports world is ruthless and cut throat – and winning, ego and money are regarded as everything by many. This environment breeds some characteristics which can be, and often are, most unhelpful. Whilst they enable short term success they guarantee long term failure. But when the pressure kicks in and results count, there is no long term legacy without short term success.

There are of course some lessons that can be learnt from the world of sport. So what are some of the practices regularly used in sport that can make a real difference in the business arena?

Leadership is not exclusive

In the best teams, while leadership is important, it is not the exclusive preserve of one person. Sports teams often change their leader or have different leaders for different situations. A rowing team, for example, may look to one member for motivation or team tactics, and another for technique or pace.

In business, what typically happens is that a team manager is appointed and given full management responsibility. The reality, however, is that starting up a project is a very different matter to turning it around or significantly expanding the scope. Few of us have all the leadership skills necessary to achieve all three tasks successfully. To achieve maximum performance, we need to learn to swap and substitute leaders in the way sports teams do.

Making practice count

In most sports the amount of time spent actually performing at high peak is relatively low compared with the amount of time spent practising. A top footballer or athlete, for example, may spend three to four hours a week performing competitively, supported by maybe 20-30 hours a week of practice.

The time for ‘practice’ and training in the conventional sense is limited in a business environment, but this doesn’t mean you have to limit the amount of time you spend learning from practice.

This is where a coaching approach has enormous benefits. We can learn from everything we do in a business environment, providing we are getting effective feedback from the previous activity and coaching advice to help us learn from our experience.

Measures of success

It is common practice within sport for aspects of the game to be measured, studied and analysed in a bid to identify the most effective way to improve team performance. The opposition is also frequently studied, to pinpoint vulnerabilities and identify changes in tactic that will expose those weaknesses. Detailed biomechanical analysis can also help individual athletes identify their strengths and weaknesses so that they can work on improvements and measure progress.

It is perfectly possible for businesses who want to make significant leaps in performance to apply these principles and identify the key actions that will give them competitive edge, particularly now that developments in technology have put massive amounts of data at our fingertips. The work is detailed and painstaking, but it will make a difference.

John Neal is also Director of Ashridge’s Sports Business Partnership which explores and applies the transferable lessons between business and sport creating powerful analogical learning experiences in the classroom.