But This Is Business, We Don’t Have The Chance To Practice.


Business leaders often tell me that business isn’t as simple as sport, and that the approaches that make athletes successful don’t necessarily translate. For example, the job of the athlete is straight forward. They simply have to run, or throw, or jump or row. Olympians get tested every four years and it’s very easy to see who the best is. Even team sports such as football and rugby have a pretty clear objective. The rules are laid down, the winner is obvious and the league table tells us who is best. There is a nice, convenient, external yard-stick to measure yourself against. The same is true of explorers and adventurers. The goal is clear; to reach the summit of the mountain or the pole. Of course, it’s not the same in business. The territory keeps changing and the goal posts move. How do we identify the best law firm or the best recruitment consultancy? What criteria would we use?

Of course there are some differences, but there are also some distinct similarities. The athletes do have a very clear measure of success. They are normally measured by time or distance. Whilst this clarity may be given to athletes, it does not mean that it’s unattainable for businesses… you just need to look a little harder.

The truth in sport is that the external markers come along at various pre-defined times. These might be called the European Championships, World Cups or Olympics. Or, they might be a league match on a wet Tuesday evening. In cricket, it could be a four-day County Championship game, followed by a Twenty Twenty game, a day on the road and then another four-day game. In the US, basketball and baseball schedules can be equally intense. The truth is that many sports have a ‘day in, day out’ competitive demand. Importantly, in between these external tests the athletes need to focus on monitoring their own progress. In fact, there is a constant switch between internal focus and external. Whilst they will measure themselves against their competition on occasions, they’ll also assess their progress against themselves on a daily basis. Businesses have exactly the same opportunity. 

What about practice?

Athletes and sports teams have dedicated time to practice, and scheduled competitions where they perform. When sports people talk to businesses about what it takes to be successful, they’ll often explain that success is achieved in training. They’ll also talk about the importance of making mistakes in training and the need to fail. That’s all very well for athletes, but business leaders remind me that they have to perform every day. When does a business get time to practice, to make mistakes or to fail?

I would argue that the gap between ‘practice’ and ‘performance’ is simply a matter of perception. In sport there are days when we practice, and days when we compete. If we call today ‘a competition day’ (because there is a trophy up for grabs), does it mean that we cannot learn? If we call today ‘a practice’ does it mean that we are not competing or aiming to produce our very best performance? Is there really a difference? Could we decide to simultaneously perform at our best AND learn as much as possible regardless of whether we call this ‘practice’ or ‘performance’?

Often our learning comes when we review our performance. As well as practicing, a thorough, robust and brutally honest debrief is central to success. I would argue that we all have the opportunity to do this, whether we’re in sport or business. Those who understand its importance will go to extreme lengths to make sure they review and learn from everything. Polar expedition leader Alan Chambers ensures that his team debrief in the tent, at -60 degrees, after a 28 hour day walking across the Arctic. RAF pilots ensure they debrief each incident (including the near misses) after an intense combat mission. In both cases there must be a temptation to say, “I haven’t got the energy to debrief, I’m tired, let’s just call it a day”. Crucially, the very best leaders don’t choose to call it a day; they know it’s just too important.

Olympic swimmer, Chris Cook, understood that his job was simply to swim Two Lengths of the Pool as quickly as he could. This was his job on a very ordinary day in mid-November, during the middle of his training cycle. It was also his job on the day of the Olympic final. Great athletes often work by the mantra, “Train like you compete, and compete like you train”. In their mind there is very little difference between what they do (and how they do it) in training and in competition. The aim, for Chris Cook, is the same; to perform at his best and learn as much as he can. When he does this, he’ll swim his Two Lengths as fast as possible AND ensure that he swims even quicker tomorrow. 

I challenge the businesses that I work with to find their “Two Lengths”. What’s your job in the simplest possible terms? What constitutes success? How do you know you’re getting better each day? What can you do to be better tomorrow that you are today?

These are the questions that drive athletes to become champions. Exactly the same questions help businesses to become great.


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