Top Five Lessons Leaders Can Learn from Sports

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by Sam at Management 3.0

After an exciting Euro Cup (sorry to all Brits), we thought it would be a great time to do a sports/leadership post. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s long been acknowledged that sports is an excellent way to learn, grow and gain important life lessons. As kids in little league baseball or soccer, they learn how to share, how to pass the ball and the importance of being a good winner and a loser. But looking to sports is also ideal for becoming better leaders and managers. Great sports teams are led by inspirational coaches who help players develop and motivate teams to achieve things they might not have thought possible. In this post we’re highlighting five key lessons that leaders can learn from sports.

#1 Lesson Leaders can learn from sports, be obsessed with improving: The only way teams get better is through continuous practice. Sports teams are constantly training, practicing and devising new plays. They push themselves physically and mentally daily and that’s because if they’re not in top form their opponents will have the edge. If a team doesn’t train and seek new ways to better their opponent and improve their own game, they risk stagnating and falling behind. Leaders need to do the same with themselves and with their teams. There should be a culture of continuous improvement, growth and learning, one that comes up with new ‘plays’ regularly and reviews how old ones are working.

#2 Lesson Leaders can learn from sports, accept what you can’t control and focus on what you can change: As much as a team practices and trains and creates plays for each scenario, there’s only so much you can control in an actual game. Players control their plays as much as they can, how hard they run and how much they focus, but they can’t control the weather, for example, and they can’t control how the other team or players will react to how they are playing. What is in their control however, is how much their heads are in the game, as sports is 90% mental. Players can control their own physical levels of fitness and they can control how they react to what is going on during the game. They can also adapt to the game if their opponents are using strategies that they weren’t expecting. They can get creative. Just like sports teams, leaders need to focus on what they can control and not worry about things they can’t change. That only creates stress and tension, which fuels an anxious culture in which to work.

#3 Lesson Leaders can learn from sports, break down the plan into manageable parts: Every play in sports requires planning and strategy, but plays can be complex and take time to memorize. In sports, coaches break down plays into small chunks so the whole team can see it. They draw each move on a board so everyone is aware of what happens when and how, and where each person fits into the play and the role each person has. By breaking it down into manageable chunks it allows people to see things more clearly. Leaders need to do the same with projects and strategic goal settings. Abstract ideas are hard to execute and so are projects that seem too large to deal with. By breaking down a project and going ‘play by play’, people have time to digest things, they can see where they fit into the overall picture and can ask questions on issues they don’t fully understand.

#4 Lesson Leaders can learn from sports, dealing with success and failure: Few things in life have stark successes and failure like sports do. Teams or individuals either win or lose, but what is crucial is how they win and lose. Athletes can be reprimanded for being sore losers or for showing inappropriate behaviour, such as a tennis player throwing their racket on the court after losing a point. Players shake hands before and after every game, no matter how devastating the loss, to show the importance of winning and losing with grace and respect. Athletes and coaches also spend a lot of time analyzing wins and losses to understand what went well and what could go better. They go over video footage and stats, to see where the gaps lie and what the weaknesses are. Leaders should do the same with their companies, first by encouraging people to win and lose — healthy competition is always good — but more importantly, by emphasizing that successes and failures at work will met with respect from all sides. They can also use company wins and losses to dissect what went wrong and look at what can go better.

#5 Lesson Leaders can learn from sports, communication and teamwork are key to success: Sports teams cannot succeed without incredible teamwork and communication. Teams spend their time talking about how to talk to each other on the field or the court. They create signs with their hands a gestures, so they know how to read each other. They create plays, and special words that only they understand so they can execute well. This requires communication and it also requires a high level of team work and collaboration. If everyone on the team either does not understand the play or isn’t participating in it, it could have detrimental effects for the success of the game. Leaders have to focus on communication and teamwork if they want their company to succeed. They must make sure not only that people are communicating, but that people understand each other and understand the various forms of communication.

What lessons do you think are important to learn from sports? Whether you’re a spectator or a player, share your thoughts with us.

Photo credit Braden Collum via Unsplash

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