What can business learn from sport?

From the desk of Paul Kennedy

We recently had the pleasure to welcome Steve Cram MBE to our offices (see news). I was asked to speak on the subject of “What can business learn from sport?” and I thought I would publish some of thoughts and research as a blog. In this first posting I am looking at the common denominator for all success and why we need a sense of purpose. In subsequent posts I will look at setting goals, the role of a coach and where there are significant differences between what you need to succeed in sport Vs succeed in business.

The first thing that strikes me is that top performing sports stars and highly successful business people are both very rare. How very few good athletes make it as top althletes. How few businesses grow beyond a certain size and then how few are truly scalable enough to become large businesses – a tiny minority. In business you can usually rely on a normal distribution of performance (or least this is true of businesses in mature, fragmented industries). I don’t know if this is true in the field of sport but I think it might be.

This rarity of success reminded me of the work of Albert Gray brought to my attention by Peter Thomson through his audio programme “The achievers edge“. In 1940 Albert Gray sought and then articulated what he saw as the common denominator of success whatever the human endeavour. In Gray’s view the secret of every person who has ever been successful lies in the fact that “they formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do”. He goes on …..”The things that ‘failures’ don’t like to do are the things that you and I and other human beings, including successful people, naturally don’t like to do. In other words,we’ve got to realise right from the start that success is something which is achieved by a minority of people … And therefore ‘unnatural’ and not to be achieved by following our natural likes and dislikes nor by being guided by our natural preferences and prejudices” .

So you may ask, why are successful people able to do things they don’t like to do whereas failures obviously are not? Gray says: “Successful people have a purpose and one strong enough to enable them to form the habit of doing things they don’t like to do to achieve the accomplishment of that purpose”. Without the strong purpose … “It easier to adjust ourselves to the hardships of a poor living than it is to adjust ourselves to the hardships of making a better one”. So to be truly successful in both sport and business you need a strong purpose.

I have recently read the book “Bounce” in which Matthew Syed suggests that success in any field of endeavour is not as a result of genetic advantage but dependent upon what he calls “Purposeful practice”. Top sporting stars are able to devote themselves to purposeful practice because they have a strong enough reason to do so. And as Jim Rohn says ” Reasons make the difference”. Take my fat friend. He says and I quote “I would do anything to lose weight ……….as long as it doesn’t involve diet or exercise”! Sounds like a quote from Homer Simpson. When is my friend going to change? When he has his first heart attack and comes face to face with his mortality? ” Reasons make the difference”. To paraphrase Tony Robbins, “Success has more to do with motivation than competence”, as when we are motivated enough, we find a way. Maybe this is different in sport? Not according to Syed in “Bounce”. In Sport, as in business it is motivation that sustains the effort required to be successful.

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