What can business learn from sport?

Sport and business have a great deal in common and each can learn from the other, but it is in the field of goal-setting, motivation and achieving excellence where sport, especially at the Olympic standard, can provide tangible learnings for business. Your Ready Business sat down with Steve Harris, Head Coach at British Canoeing who shares some of the traits within an Olympic standard sport and how these can be applied to business.

In sport, as elsewhere, success is a bit like going on a long journey. You need to know what the destination is first and foremost, then details such as when you want to arrive, how long you must leave in order to get there on time and what it will take to complete the journey.

This analogy translates into the ambition you want to achieve. You establish your targets then track backwards, thinking about what it takes to hit them. It might be a specific time that you want to set in a racing final. In the 100 metres, for example, 9.82 seconds might be the time you think will secure first place.

Having established this, you turn to the principles of ‘What It Takes To Win’ or WITTW as we call it. You name the critical factors, which for a sprinter will be running at more than 25 mph, then what it takes to achieve those – in other words strength and explosive power.

After that the process, it involves going out and finding the fastest athletes possible as well as – at least as importantly – the team of professionals that will help the athletes achieve their targets.

Just like in sport, in business identifying talent and recruiting the best is important. That doesn’t just mean finding impressive people, but those who are the right fit for your organisation. You need to set up robust processes to ensure you are investing in the right kind of talent.

The role of vision-setting

Creating parameters and establishing goals is only part of the puzzle, however. You also need the glue that binds it all together: a shared vision that everyone in the team can understand and buy into.

It’s equally vital that each person understands how their role contributes to the finished product and what they have to do to achieve a good job for the team. Everyone must be clear on why they are there.

In sport, as in business, goal-setting is extremely important, but it isn’t productive to obsess about the target, whether it’s a gold medal or £100,000 in sales. For a start, these can get boring and quickly lose their inspirational qualities, but, worse, the goal could become a draining factor on moral.

Consider sprinting again: only one person has been world or Olympic champion in the last five years: Usain Bolt. Everyone else must set other parameters for personal success, such as achieving a certain time in a major competition, or be in a permanent state of disappointment.

It’s a good idea to focus on the factors that create success, rather than success itself. These change all the time and are better motivators. After an Olympics, for example, we learn as many lessons as possible about what went right and what went wrong; nothing is wasted.

We take the good stuff and adapt it for the next four-year cycle, taking into account the new factors at play in the next Games – London being a very different prospect to Rio. Then we work on the factors that will help us in 2016.

Motivation around the clock

Motivating people to do well is perhaps a little easier in sport than in business, particularly because the goals are often well-defined and athletes are generally motivated individuals with a drive to succeed.

But nevertheless there will be times when our people feel dejected – after an injury setback or a disappointing competition – and coaches have to be able to show them a positive way forward. Any goal that is not achieved is a learning opportunity, remember.

This motivation needs to last because athletes, like remote workers, cannot be managed around the clock, yet they have to stick to guidelines on nutrition, exercise and lifestyle if they want to improve. This comes back to the vision you create for them. Make it powerful enough and they will work hard to achieve it.

The most important lessons businesses can learn from sport are to recruit the right people – not just the best people, set them a clear goals and explain why they are on a particular path, motivate them to stay on the right track and keep learning when things don’t go to plan.