Six Lessons Managers Can Learn From Elite Athletes

If you had the chance to watch the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team on their path to winning the World Cup this summer, then you’ve seen exceptionally talented, hard-driving, confident, and determined athletes perform at the top of their game.

Elite athletes bring passion to their work and learn how to optimize every aspect of their body and mind to achieve their goals. It may seem that stars like Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan have a level of mastery the rest of us can’t hope to attain—but there’s a lot you can learn from the way professional athletes prepare for big moments that can be applied to your own work performance and your life.

The FruitGuys Magazine spoke with Baron Christopher Hanson, the owner of Red Baron Consulting in Charleston, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, about some of the ways that sports psychology can boost your office’s bottom line. He played rugby for Harvard Business School and has worked with the USA Rugby association to promote the sport.

“One does not need to be an athlete or star team player to draw from the mental and physical stimulation of sport or athletic preparation to advance one’s performance or success at work,” says Hanson. The real value of sports psychology is what it can teach us about making ourselves more powerful and effective as individuals and as team members. Here are six lessons that any manager, or employee, can learn from the mindset of elite athletes.

1. Prioritize Health and Fitness

It goes without saying that athletes need to pay attention to physical conditioning, maximizing their speed, strength, endurance, and reflexes to enhance their performance. But so do managers, graphic designers, salespeople, and workers in all kinds of roles, even if their job descriptions are much less physically demanding. Studies have well documented and supported the connection between physical health and overall wellbeing and achievement. “Diet, sleep, and fitness are factors critical to workplace success, physical confidence, and especially mental sharpness in any role,” Hanson says.

2. Practice and Prepare

Your job probably doesn’t require wind sprints or batting practice, but there are many strategies you can use to build your job skills and prepare yourself for important meetings and high-pressure situations.

If you’re giving a speech, presentation, or even a report at your next team meeting, Hanson recommends practicing it again and again, getting any slides or handouts perfect. You’ve heard of professional athletes watching and rewatching themselves, and their opponents, on film. If possible, record yourself giving your talk and review it. This is also a great practice for job interviews. It may feel awkward to watch yourself or listen to your voice, but there’s no better way to identify and correct any rough spots.

Whatever skills you’re hoping to grow, take every opportunity to practice and flex your professional muscles. You might volunteer for an extracurricular project or committee at work, or with an outside organization. If you’re in a creative field, visiting theaters and art museums, as well as writing and painting, can provide great “exercise.” Work in HR or sales? Burnish your social skills in your leisure time. In management? Jump in as the peacemaker on a fractious committee or charity you’re involved with.

3. Never Stop Improving

Athletes at the highest level understand that winning today means nothing tomorrow unless they continue to grow their skills, knowing full well that their competitors will be doing the same. As their bodies age, even Olympians know they have to continually improve their mental sharpness, emotional balance, and maturity to stay competitive.

That’s a good goal for anyone, whether it means attending or presenting at conferences; taking classes or certificate courses; or simply reading up on the latest developments in your field. Understanding your strengths and interests, as well as where you need to improve, is a valuable exercise at any stage of your career. Soccer superstar Abby Wambach told podcaster Michael Gervais, host of Finding Mastery, that: “Understanding yourself is the biggest game that we’re all actually playing. …I find that the more time that I focus on myself and my internal self, the better outside, external self I live.” For her, that included attending psychotherapy and developing self-knowledge.

4. Accept Failure and Adversity as Opportunities

Even the biggest stars in sports will tell you they’ve faced a lot of losses along the way. Failure is built into athletic competition, and the best coaches and athletes will tell you that it’s a valuable experience.

Researchers interviewed 10 Olympic gold medalists for a 2015 study on the importance of adversity-related experiences to their development and eventual success. The study found that these athletes had “…encountered a range of sport- and non-sport adversities that they considered were essential for winning their gold medals, including repeated non-selection, significant sporting failure, serious injury, political unrest, and the death of a family member.”

Experiences of failure and adversity don’t have to stop you—for many they’re essential for winning at the highest level. It’s why so many job applicants are asked to share a story about a specific challenge they encountered and how they overcame it. Smart managers understand that supporting team members working through adversity and failure—whether it’s a failed start-up, job loss, or a project that went bust—shows determination, builds resilience, and provides valuable lessons.

5. Work as a Team

Even Michael Jordan and LeBron James learned that they needed strong supporting players to win a championship. The best teams have an important element in common: individuals finding roles and niches that maximize their abilities, which leads to a cohesive and effective group effort. Consider this in the context of your workplace. What does the team lack, and who can provide it? Who has untapped potential, and how can you help them reach it? Where do some people have deficiencies, and how can you work around them?

This is where managers play a critical role in identifying individual skills and managing personalities as they shuffle their “roster” into a winning combination. The players may get all the credit, but the coach makes a winning team.

6. Focus

The beauty of sports is that they simplify life, for a brief window of time, into a narrow set of rules and goals, reducing the number of choices each player has to make. The best athletes build their whole life around maximizing performance in those precise areas.

Most of our jobs are not so clearly defined, but one key to building your winning team is identifying which staffers will benefit from a more narrow focus and finding ways to help them thrive. Some employees will benefit from increased responsibilities, while others can become stars if they’re allowed to specialize. Managers can play the role of a coach, supporting their staff and making them more effective by providing a set of clearly defined goals.

Those who have mastered sports have discovered a number of winning techniques, and most of them are mental or emotional, rather than physical. So the next time you’re facing a major challenge or important opportunity at work, you might picture yourself in the shoes, or cleats, of your favorite sports hero, and think about how they might prepare to show up as their best selves, with skills honed.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.

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