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How Sport Can Inform Business


Were you glued to the television on Sunday feeling your heart racing, sitting on the edge of your seat, cheering on the sport of your choice? Whether it was the Netball World Cup, Tour de France, Cricket World Cup, Wimbledon Final or Formula 1, there was a sense of thrill and excitement as we backed our favourite team.


At a meeting I attended yesterday, Linda Denny posed the question,

“What can we learn from sport and apply to the workplace?”

What followed was an interesting discussion about what it is about sport that enthuses people, particularly participants.


It was interesting to remind ourselves that even sports where we focus on individuals such as tennis or Formula 1, we shouldn’t forget the team of people behind them. These team members often miss the limelight but without their efforts, the winner wouldn’t achieve their status. It always amazes me how selfless Tour de France cyclists are when they lead the person chosen to win the race for the team to the finish line. These team members drop off to the side once they’ve played their role in setting the required pace… even when the finish line is virtually in sight for themselves. In other words, the team players are rooting for each other; there is no room for heroes.


So why are sporting teams so successful in terms of working together? As a team, no one person is responsible and individuals cannot achieve success without their peers playing their part. Leaders need to know when to delegate, when to direct, when to support and when to empower the ‘players’. And they need to be willing to do this, knowing that the more the team are on board and the more practice they have at developing skills, the more effective they will be. It’s about achieving more by developing each member of the team individually and as a whole.


Playing to individuals’ strengths is key. The captain wouldn’t put a Goal Shooter at Centre in netball. Leaders in business need to know where and how their team members excel and utilise this. We need diversity in teams to create the best ‘whole’ and this includes a range of factors including personality, experience, age, gender. And everyone plays their part in the big picture, whether you’re the receptionist setting the scene for people walking through the door, the cleaner keeping the workspace looking great or the office manager. There is no room for hierarchy taking precedent. The misconception that teams expect their leader to be better than them shouldn’t be the case. As Richard Branson said,

“If you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room”

So, don’t be afraid to have excellent people around you. What are your objectives? What does the composition of your team need to look like? A team leader has a unique role and should be different to doing what everyone else is focusing on. They have to steer the ship, encourage, coach, give real-time feedback, reward valued behaviours and facilitate the members to fulfill their roles. Being great at making widgets doesn’t mean you’ll be a great leader of a team making them.

People need to be happy with their role and get on with their team members in order to thrive.


What about communication? I’m always intrigued by the signals tennis pairs give each other when they’re about to serve, to let their partner know the plan. Why do so many companies still get this wrong, with poor communication often cited as one of the biggest factors blocking success? We need to to share information that is timely, accessible to all, transparent and positive. We need to be able to ask questions, seek clarification, challenge, offer alternatives and most of all, trust and respect each other.


Sports people prepare rigorously with teammates for their event and then debrief afterwards to learn from their experience. In business, successful teams take time as a group to identify what they are aiming for, what each person is going to do towards that goal, their strengths and previous learnings, any challenges they anticipate and what they need from each other to succeed. At the end of the timeframe, they re-group to highlight what worked well and what they might do differently in the future. Failures and mistakes don’t cause blame but instead provide learning opportunities. They are deconstructed to understand what happened, and why and action is taken to assure it doesn’t happen again.


And finally, sport is fun! Players have a sense of identity, they feel valued, and they share a sense of purpose. I was inspired to write this article after going to my tug-of-warteam practice last night. No, it’s not serious and yes, it is a lot of fun. Three villages deciding to compete with each other for the trophy in the new annual contest. 10 of us signed up feeling a sense of obligation to the organiser but it is so rewarding that we’re investing in rugby boots to improve our grip (sponsors welcome!)!! The outcome will be known on 31st August but in the meantime, I’ve developed new friendships and I enjoy a lot of laughter with some fabulous women all striving for the same result. I’ll keep you posted…