3 Lessons from an Athlete to Entrepreneurs: How to Work Smarter, Not Harder


3 Lessons from an Athlete to Entrepreneurs: How to Work Smarter, Not Harder

The similarities between sport and business are well known. In both cases, doing things faster, differently or more efficiently can result in success. Having competed as an althete and now working as a coach, I can see three primary lessons that entrepreneurs can learn from.

1) Identifying your strengths

One of the essential things to know as an athlete is what you are good at. This might sound obvious, but it is remarkable how many athletes do not play to their strengths. This can be a tricky process, but without it, you are putting yourself at a considerable disadvantage. An athlete who is able to accelerate during the last 50m of an 800m race needs to know that they are able to do so, as it is their best way of winning. This applies for mental skills too – some athletes are able to read races. They are able to spot gaps in the race, changes of pace and the behavior of different competitors. This crucial insight can allow you to know when it is best to make a move.

In the same way, an entrepreneur needs to know what they are able to offer that is better, or at least different, from others. Just as an athlete can read a race, an entrepreneur’s advantage could be that they understand the market better. The success of a new bus company in my hometown (Bath, UK) resulted from a crucial key insight. The incumbent company was succeeding because they had little competition. The new company focused on two routes and sold tickets for a cheaper price. This simple (and successful) strategy resulted from the fact that they understood the reality of the situation – and played to it accordingly.

Finally, it is important to gauge how your strengths develop. In some cases, your core strength can change. Steve Ovett, the 800m 1980 Olympic Champion, is a prime example of this. During his junior years he was able to win races purely because of the fact that he was talented enough to be able to out-run his competitors. When he reached a world-class level, this changed; many of the people he raced against were capable of beating him. He then had to learn how to read the race and outsmart them. In the same way, Hotmail founders Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith spotted a simple problem – that email wasn’t portable enough – and exploited it. They made it possible to access email from anywhere, at no cost.

2) Growth and change

Growing your business is a process associated with risk. One entrepreneur once described to me the agony of hiring his first employee; he knew he needed to do it, but didn’t want to. Similarly, one of the biggest changes in athletics is going from junior to senior level. Unsurprisingly, it is the stage at which most athletes quit the sport. Having succeeded as a junior, they are unable to do as well as a senior. This is due to a number of key differences. First, the number of people you are competing against grows enormously. Whilst there may have been a dozen people of you caliber as a junior, there may be ten or twenty times more as a senior. Second, many senior athletes will have much more racing experience than you. You may be younger and be physically fitter, but they can still beat you because they know how to race. They can spot crucial gaps during competitions and know the strengths and weaknesses of other athletes. Finally, the competition standards are much tougher. It can take several years to achieve the necessary times and many athletes will drop out of the sport altogether. 

An entrepreneur could encounter similar challenges when growing their business. If you decide to set up a new office in a larger city, you will undoubtedly find more competition. Indeed, you may find that they are outright better than you. In some cases, the businesses you are competing against may be as good as yours, but simply know how to market themselves better. With both business and sport, you cannot progress without taking on some form of risk. The athlete may quit against tougher competition and the entrepreneur may run out of money, for example. However, this should not discourage an athlete or entrepreneur from attempting to grow. It is simply a case of getting to know your competition well and working out your competitive advantages.

3) Managing information correctly 

Feedback is something that a good athlete needs in order to progress, be it subjective or objective. The trick is not collecting this information, but managing it correctly. Numerous statistics are available – lap times, pulse rates and race results – but incorporating them into your training program properly is essential. One common mistake is to overanalyze a training (something I have done and seen often). The temptation is to change a training session or race tactics based on a few data points. Yet a slow race, or unusually fast session should be taken into account only in context of many months of training and racing. Otherwise, this can lead to minor adjustments being made on a regular basis that ruin the strategy for your whole season. More often than not, it is better to let your plan run its course. If not, you will never know how good it was in the first place. The lesson for entrepreneurs is clear here: once you have devised your strategy, stick to it. Take little changes into account, but allow for some variance in results. Run your strategy for a set period of time and then take stock.

These lessons emphasize the importance of working smarter, not harder, than the competition. Of course, hard work cannot be avoided, but the key is doing work efficiently. 

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