Athletes Teach Business

Athletes teach Business

Crossfit is a sport that was explained to me, as a mixture of constantly varied functional exercises including: Gymnastics, Weight Lifting and Cardio. These are completed as part of a WOD (workout of the day). I started Crossfit about two years ago and I began to question, ‘can athletes teach business’?

Crossfit is my favourite fitness regime. It is a sporting activity like nothing I have tried before and I fell in love with it after the very first session I attended.  If you have met any “Cross-fitters” you will know that they never stop talking about it!Transferable skills that apply to Crossfit and Business

Someone at my local box (gym) was chatting one day about how they needed to improve their skills and performance, with particular regard to improving their anxiety management during a competition. As I listened to them talking, it reminded me of how we can use transferrable skills from life, business and sport to benefit our performance in each. I spent some time thinking about this and finally sat down to write this blog about it.

Passion & belief

Ben Hunt-Davis, Sydney 2004 British Olympic Gold Medallist Rower, recounts in his book ‘Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?’ how despite his own immense personal belief and that of his team of fellow rowers, there were still times when doubt crept in. He vividly recalls times when he relied heavily on the support and motivation of others to maintain the ‘faith’.

You’ve rehearsed the script a million times, you know the goal and the game plan is written. The crowds are gathering: there are supporters, sceptics, disbelievers and the nonchalant casual observer. They are all out there in the crowd somewhere, watching and waiting to see the result.

Ben tells a graphic story of how he walked from his accommodation in the Olympic Village on the morning of the race. Leaving his room with his team mates, they walked down to the mess hall for breakfast with the other athletes. He remembers walking down to the water’s edge, seeing the boat and promptly turning into the bushes to throw up the contents of the breakfast he had just eaten. His passion, his complete belief and desire to win that Gold medal, meant that right there in that moment this was what he cared about the most.

He had a personal vision. He and his team had a game plan. They knew where they wanted to be and how to get there, but more than that they all wanted it as badly as each other. They were passionate and united in their belief that this was a desirable and attainable goal. Athletes teach business in that they have clear goals, they are committed to them and everything they do works towards that goal.

Stephen Covey in his well known book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ uses a very insightful phrase “The way we see the problem, is the problem” (Covey 1989:40). Perception is fundamental to how we behave. Let me put it another way, “it’s the thought that counts” (Greenberger et al. 1995:15). In their book, “Mind Over Mood”, Greenberger et al. describe the thought/mood connection and how the way we think directly impacts the way we feel and ultimately behave. Again we see here athletes teach business to analyse our perceptions and be open to challenge and change.

Like Ben, we may have clear goals for our business or we may not, but the way we think about them and perceive them will create thoughts and feelings that will inevitably lead to corresponding behaviours. A lesson I have learnt from this is to be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic & time bound) in the creation of my goals, both in business and Crossfit. To commit to my goals with passion and belief. Ben describes a simple strategy for cultivating 4 beliefs that we can all benefit from holding and nurturing, using the mnemonic D.I.C.E:

  • Deserved – I deserve this, I have worked for this
  • Important – this is important to me/us
  • Can do this – even if you don’t know just how yet
  • Exciting – this is exciting, I am passionate about it, I believe in it, it drives me, I get out of bed for this

Do what is necessary

Henry David Threau (cited in Covey 1995:67) states that “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.” Doing what has to be done!

In sports such as Crossfit, or indeed in business, it can be argued that an essential component of achieving high performance is to know what to do and sticking to it. For example, you tend not to see a sprinter running mid or long distance races, as this is not going to necessarily help them in their cause to be the best sprinter.

During a WOD (workout of the day), Crossfit athletes know that they have a set of exercises that they have to perform. They also know the time limit and what techniques and form are required to carry out those exercises safely to the recognised standard. They know what is necessary and when the clock starts they commit to doing just that. There is no discussion mid-WOD, no debate or negotiation on form or number of reps; the WOD has started and you are in it.

In business, as in sport, being pro-active in identifying what needs to be done, what will deliver the desired impact and then committing to doing that can potentially be highly beneficial. Even if we argue that in business knowing what should be done can be more complex and less clear than for an athlete of a particular sport, we can still learn from the athlete.

Future gazing and imagination can cut through some of the complexity and lack of clarity and actually, could make it irrelevant at some level. No-one can truly know the future, but visualisation techniques have been well utilised by athletes for decades. Picturing the finishing line or seeing the perfect lift in your minds eye is a powerful technique and can help businesses to ‘begin with the end in mind’ (Covey 1995). Covey explains that things are created twice. Firstly in our minds as concepts and aspirations and secondly they are physically created and put in place.

Doing what is necessary may therefore start in the mind of a business owner, an employee or an athlete who sits and thinks it, who spends a moment to dream the dream and create the possibility in their mind. A good friend and business coach of ours often uses a phrase “work on the business, not in it.” I truly believe in this sentiment, along with the need to focus on things that will specifically get you to where you want/need to be. My favourite phrase which sums this up is ‘stick to the knitting.’ I have no idea who said it or where I heard it, but it has stuck with me for many years and here athletes teach business that we have to do what is necessary and only what is necessary!


Distraction from your focus, is in my experience both in sport and business, frustrating, costly and destructive. That is not to say that if you are focusing on the wrong things you shouldn’t stop it, but thats what the last point was all about! Covey (1995) talks of ‘sharpening the saw’, practice the necessary skills and techniques, such as: self talk and visualisation, renew yourself (rest, re-group) and master the skills you need to acquire.

In business, we might craft this in-terms of ‘productive thinking,’ described by Tim Hurson in his book ‘Think Better’ as “the kind of thinking that leads to new ideas and breakthrough change.”  He states that “this kind of thinking changes not only what we do but how we see the world. It is a way of coping with change and creating change” (2008:43). Hurson even goes as far as to suggest that in the future the ability to think better, will become a significant competitive advantage both for individuals and companies. This is interesting as earlier in this blog we discussed that things begin with a thought and are created there first. Athletes teach business here that the way we think is linked to how we feel and consequently behave.

Time management

Finally, I wanted to spend some time talking about time! Learning time management skills for business through sport

How many times a day do you hear ‘there is not enough time’ or ‘where has the time gone’? Someone wise once told me, there is always time to do things, it’s how you choose to use that time that is the key! Athletes teach business to focus on the things that will make a material difference. Its all too easy to practice the things you are good at (maybe that is why you are good at them)! Having the commitment and dedication to focus on things we are not so good at it what athletes teach business. They put in the effort and time to drill into those weak areas, to make then into their strengths.

In Crossfit, the majority of the WODs are programmed with a time element of some kind. You may be asked to complete the WOD once within a time cap, maybe complete as many reps of the exercises within a time cap, or complete the exercises in as little time as possible.

In business, there are a number of hours allocated to work in a given day or week and how we choose to use that time is the crucial element. One thing I have learnt from athletes, and in particular Crossfit athletes, is the use of time. There are tactics, optimum orders to complete tasks, ways to breakdown tasks, strategic team decisions to be made in team WODs. They do not concern themselves with asking for more time or a different time limit – they take the time they have and optimise the tasks and their delivery strategy to get the best result within the parameter of time. Of course time is not necessarily a fixed parameter in business in every situation, but neither should it be seen as the easiest option to flex in-order to avoid optimisation in productivity.

What do I work on first for instance? In business, I find that I am at my best in a morning but I am not great at working later in the day. Therefore, for me, critical and complex tasks are best done first thing. During Crossfit WODs, I sometimes tackle the most tiring exercise first (if we have the choice), or I might break tiring exercises down into smaller amounts of reps to get through. Athletes teach business to use tactics, to plan and manage time before it manages you!

Comfort zones are a polite way of saying ‘coasting’

In my experience, comfort zones suck, both in Crossfit and business!

Sure there are times during a workout where I will stop and take a breather, after-all, it’s a sensible thing to do! Especially if your fitness is anything like mine. However, I do not seek to stay in that state. My goal is to improve, become fitter and require less breathers over time. Personally, I cannot think of anything more frustrating than constantly working out and seeing no improvement. That would seem futile and frankly depressing. For me, there is a fundamental difference between taking a minute to catch your breath before getting back into the workout with as much vigour as you can muster, and taking a break to watch the clock ticking knowing that the more time you waste, the less time is left to workout. Athletes teach business that we have to grasp the difficult items, the weaknesses and go with them. Turn the weakness into a strength and maximise the effort and time put into it so that it changes. Tough to do, easy to say; but no-one ever said it was going to be easy!Pushing yourself in your business and sporting environments

Likewise, getting stuck in business is not a comfortable place either in my opinion, which is ironic when you think that we call getting stuck a ‘comfort zone’. I see business as a challenge. An opportunity for a team of people to work together, pulling in the same direction towards a shared set of goals. This may sound utopian as you read it, but I don’t think so. I am not a dreamer in that respect. I simply believe that if we engage our passion and belief, do what is necessary with focus and use our time efficiently, we can achieve great things.

An athlete does all of these things. They engage their passion for their sport, they believe, they focus on the task in-hand and do what is necessary to achieve it. They plan their time through carefully structured programmes and workout schedules and stick to the agreed priorities unwaveringly.

I think this blog has shown that athletes teach business many things. They have much to teach the world of business and I can’t help but feel that we have only just scratched the surface in this blog. I am determined to stop compartmentalising my athletic life and my business life. I hope to merge the two in the expectation of great things in the future!

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