Recently I submitted the manuscript for my first book to my editor. Although there’s still more work to be done, it took a huge amount of effort and time to get me to this point. 

In the book, I’ve included several analogies that relate to sport. I’m a big believer that there’s much we can learn about business from the world of sports, even if, on the surface, these two environments seem vastly different!

While this concept might not be groundbreaking for many of you, the specific similarities and differences may not be as widely known. Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed a frenzy of sporting events, including the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the AFL and NRL Grand Finals, and the latest Netflix documentary on David Beckham. Yet perhaps this frenzy is actually something that lasts all year long in Australia.

As I watch these sports, whether as a devoted fan or not, I often find myself wondering what these teams are doing to be at the top of their game? What goes on behind the scenes that enables them to be at their best on the field? And is there something they might be missing that could give them a competitive edge?

There are numerous lessons that we can draw from the sporting world and apply them to the professional working world, and vice versa. This is because there are already many similarities between business and sport, with just a few key differences. Yet it might be these differences that can propel both our sports and business teams to greater success!

What are the similarities? 

First and foremost, both sports and business rely on having a team of individual contributors and leaders. Whilst in the past, both groups might have had just one leader, these days, it’s common to see a group of leaders working together. Leadership is vital in both arenas because it plays a pivotal role in inspiring and motivating the team towards a common goal. In both settings, the traditional ‘command and control’ style of leadership has given way to the ’empower and inspire’ approach. So these days, we’re seeing more encouragement and support being given to team members, which encourages collaboration, autonomy and motivation, ultimately leading to better results.

Teamwork is a cornerstone in both sports and business. There’s a strong emphasis on building robust relationships based on trust and psychological safety, which leads to a better team culture and consequently, better outcomes. Quality connections are built intentionally through every-day actions that support people to be their authentic selves and foster a sense of belonging, so it feels like a family. This contrasts with setting up a competitive environment within the team, where they compete against one another with the intent of motivating them. Sporting teams are increasingly focusing on their cultures as they have recognised the positive impact this has on their performance. Similarly, organisations are doing the same so they can create an environment that attracts and retains the best talent in the ongoing ‘war on talent’. The significance of the team is even evident in individual-based sports, with players acknowledging the support of those around them, such as their coaches, therapists, physicians etc. in helping them reach the top.

Both sports and business environments are highly stressful due to the frequency of failures they face. So, teams need to learn not only how to bounce back but also how to move forward from setbacks whether it’s a lost game or missed sales opportunity. They must maintain focus on their goals, even in the face of tough competition. In both domains, challenges are increasingly seen as opportunities for develop and learning, thanks in part to the Growth Mindset, which has been embraced by sports and business.

Are there any differences?

Despite the similarities, there are a few key differences between sports and business. Professional athletes dedicate more time for rest and recovery than working professionals do. They understand that this is vital to their success. In the corporate world, there’s often a tendency to overwork, a failure to switch off, or skip holidays, which can contribute significantly to burnout. Athletes on the other hand, reenergise themselves regularly, so they’re able to train and play at their best. Sports also have defined seasons, so it’s clear when they’re on and when they’re off. Whereas businesses typically operate year-round, making it challenging to work out when to take time off. Yet rest is essential for innovation and productivity, making it a significant benefit in the workplace. 

Even though we’ve all heard the saying ‘play to your strengths’ before, they seem to do this better in sports. Leaders and coaches are adept at identifying the unique skills and abilities of their players and creating game plans and strategies that capitalise on these strengths. This is in contrast to many traditional workplaces, which tend to focus on fixing their employees’ shortcomings, closing their gaps or turning their weaknesses into strengths. However, the ideal approach is to encourage individuals to use their strengths to meet their challenges, as that’s when they enter a state of flow. Flow is a concept that is more frequently spoken about in sports and should be more applied in business. Leaders in organisations need to be consider how they can get more team members into flow, as this is when they are at their peak engagement and performance.

While success in sports is typically clear – you either win or lose. But in business, there isn’t always a clear winner. Success in business can encompass a wide range of factors, including profit, market share, customer satisfaction or employee retention etc. Unlike in sports moreover, sometimes winning can be seen as a bad thing in business. However, if organisations expand their definition of success to include engagement and wellbeing, an exceptional culture or the creation of new products or services as examples, then winning becomes something to value.

One of the most significant differences lies in the understanding of why. In sports typically, the purpose is to win. Yet often for us to achieve meaning in our lives, our purpose needs to focus on something bigger than ourselves or how we are positively contributing to others. Our purpose can be what gets us out of bed every day, and should influence our careers, goals and every-day actions. Work for many people is where they can live out their purpose. And many organisations know their purpose – it could be about profit, or social or environmental impacts. What’s more when your purpose overlaps with your organisation’s purpose, that’s when you find meaning in your role, and this is a big motivator to achieve collective goals. For some sporting teams however, their purpose has become more than the game. The purpose of the Richmond Football Club ‘is about connecting, strengthening and unifying our community’. The Matilda’s purpose, as another example, is ‘much bigger than football’ and was focused on inspiring a nation, leaving a huge legacy and helping build a world where women are equal – something I think we can all agree they are helping to achieve!

So, there are both similarities and differences between sports and business. Both domains have evolved over recent years in response to our changing environments and a deeper understanding of the importance of their most important assets – their people. And the two worlds can continue to learn from one another, with valuable lessons to share and apply.