Coming Through in the Clutch — Business and Sports Parallels

Sean Brown

I love sports.

I love to play them. I love to coach them. I love to watch them.

Some of the sports memories I’ll never forget were the result of being part of an inspired, high-performing team that won.

Some of my greatest business memories also came from being a part of an inspired, high-performing team that “won” (exceeded goals, achieved success, conquered difficult odds).

I’m repeatedly struck by the parallels between business and sports.

Here are the five similarities I find most relevant:

1. Several building blocks need to be harmonized for a team to succeed.

A great coach is necessary, but not sufficient, for a team to succeed. Having uniquely talented athletes is also not enough. All great teams (my favorite examples are the ’85 Bears, the ’87 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the ’90s Chicago Bulls, and the 2016 Chicago Cubs) share traits that were all carefully harmonized to lead to victory. These teams all had a shared vision of success, strong players and coaches who were clear on their roles and passionate about their quest, working hard to improve constantly (with practices that were often tougher than games), and a culture and chemistry that reinforced their goal to succeed.

As a business leader, I know that my primary job is to paint a vivid picture of the future, define clear objectives for measuring success, and ensure that the people we hire, and the way we recognize, develop, and reward employees, is orchestrated to achieve success.

2. Athletes do well in business, especially in sales.

Athletes bring several hard-to-teach traits to the business world, which is why companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car use TV ad campaigns to attract and promote college athletes.

  • The best athletes are, by their nature, competitive, and absolutely hate to lose.
  • Student-athletes learn time management and the ability to multitask. They’re unbelievably efficient with their time, and are constantly focused on maximizing the impact of their efforts and addressing the things that matter most.
  • Team-sport athletes buy into the concept of working hard and sacrificing for the team. They know that individual achievement is important, but ultimately the success of the team is the key priority.
  • They learn in film sessions in their sports careers that the best way to improve week-to-week is to be open to receiving and incorporating constructive criticism. Every athlete knows they aren’t perfect, and always has a self-imposed improvement plan. They know that great lessons come from both victories and defeats.
  • Athletes understand the cadence of train hard → play a game → learn from results → train hard → play a game → learn from results. Rinse. Repeat.

Sounds a lot like the monthly/quarterly sales cadence, doesn’t it? What business leader wouldn’t want to hire a competitive, team-oriented, hard-working, efficient, introspective, humble employee who can get the job done week after week, and quarter after quarter?

3. Everyone plays an important role on the team — a team is only as strong as its weakest player, and it needs diverse skill sets.

There are a lot of skill-set truisms in sports. Not every player on a baseball team can, or should, pitch. A great basketball team that has a weak bench will be challenged to win a championship. While you don’t need too many players on your football team who can kick field goals, you do need a few kicking specialists and a reliable long-snapper. Even though the primary responsibility of a running back is to carry the ball, the great running backs can also block well and catch passes. All of these concepts have analogs in business.

For business, make sure to figure out the skills you need for your team to succeed. Each role matters. Every single one. Sometimes you need specialists, and sometimes you need cross-functional “athletes.” You need to have talent on your bench. When you determine the roles you need on your team: 1) Be unbending and patient in finding individuals who have the key competencies you are looking for. 2) Make sure with any internal promotions that the individual has both the willingness and readiness to take on a new job. 3) Provide every employee with the training, coaching, and tools they require to succeed. 4) Don’t tolerate weak performers. They bring down the team.

4. You learn a lot about the commitment of the individual and heart of the team in the fourth quarter.

As a die-hard Bears fan, it is truly difficult for me to compliment a Green Bay Packers player. However, I continue to be amazed by the Packers’ legendary quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers recently led the Packers to victory with a touchdown drive that began with just over one minute left on the clock in the fourth quarter of a big rivalry game with the Dallas Cowboys. I was awed, but not a bit surprised, by what he accomplished in the fourth quarter, as he does time and again. Great players find a way, when it truly matters most, to overcome adversity and to raise their game to a new level. They believe, and they tangibly will themselves and their teams to win.

In business, you similarly learn a lot about the commitment and heart of an individual or a team when you see how they perform when the odds are against them, and success or failure falls on their shoulders. When you identify the sales team members that find a way in Q4 to put you over-the-top on your revenue targets, hold on to them. They are your equivalent to Aaron Rodgers. They will consistently deliver for you when it most counts. Then, they will get right back to work, focusing on the next milestone to reach.

5. Make sure the game is fun.

Even though professional athletes earn a paycheck, and are “working” each day they arrive at the field/court/ice, the most successful athletes are the ones who always find ways to make playing enjoyable, and to maintain an exuberance for the game. They remember always how lucky they are, and that, after all, it is just a game…not a life-or-death situation. They find ways to make it fun for themselves and for their teammates. If you are going to spend 40–60 hours away from your family every week (or spend nearly ⅓ of your life on something), make it memorable. Make it fun.

Working should be fun. Period. There will be ups and downs, but it’s important to remember you have your team behind you to pick you up when you’re in a slump.

It is fun to be on a team…but it is even more fun to be on a winning team. We all want to be part of a fun, winning organization.

Sports and business share a lot of commonalities. I continue to pull inspiration and leverage analogies from sports. What parallels do you see between business and sports?

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