How elite sportspeople can make good business leaders

Can the core skills that make an elite sportsperson successfully translate into the business world?

GB Olympic Rowing Team setting off from the pier in their boat.

There are obvious parallels to draw between the elite sporting and business worlds — from literal goal-scoring to the pursuit of organizational goals; working with teammates in a highly competitive environment; the need to perform at the highest level under extreme pressure; and having the right balance of commitment, humility and perseverance to bounce back from failures.

But how transferable are these skills? Does the disciplined training structure and focus on marginal gains that bring success to elite sportspeople easily translate to the business world?

Olivia Carnegie-Brown was a member of the Great Britain women's eight rowing team that won silver at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics — the first Olympic medal ever won by a British women’s eight. Shortly after, she joined EY as part of its Women Athletes Business Network (WABN), a program that helps elite female athletes make the transition from their sport to the professional business realm. Following the success of the program, more athletes have now joined EY through similar initiatives. 

Carnegie-Brown has seen first-hand the similarities and differences between the sporting and business worlds. In both, she argues, communication is key — particularly as team members and colleagues have very different personalities that will cope with challenges in very different ways.

The journey matters more when dealing with pressure

Performing under intense pressure is a prerequisite in elite sport, but it is also a mindset that is invaluable throughout our working lives. Athletes understand that the best way to cope with pressure comes through practice. With the start of Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 upon us, every team will be repeatedly practicing their skills so that they can perform to their peak on match day.

“When you have to deal with pressure, that pressure typically comes from the journey,” Carnegie-Brown explains. “For me, getting selected and having a seat in the boat that goes to the Olympics was much more pressure than actually racing at the Olympics. The pressure comes from the buildup, and the confidence you can display when it comes to the final is because you know that you have already practiced it a million times. That was the point where I actually felt the least pressure.” 

“I think you can take that belief into business,” she says. “Because whatever it is you are working toward and preparing for, as long as you are getting from A to B as best as possible, then when you get to the finish line, you are just doing what you have already practiced. Too many people don't really see that; they think, ‘I've got to perform on the day,’ but actually, if you are very well drilled, practiced and prepared, then on the day it happens, you will probably be the most relaxed you have been.”

That ability to handle pressure is just one of many transferrable skills that explain why elite sportspeople can make good business leaders. But as Carnegie-Brown argues, equally important is the ability to work closely together and better understand both your teammates and yourself.

Different strokes for different folks

“The main skill that I probably took for granted when I was rowing was communication — being able to communicate with people at all different levels, and knowing how to work with different personalities and get the most out of people. It also leads to being open and honest, having a dignified humility, and accepting that you are often wrong,” says Carnegie-Brown. 

“The more that you can understand your team and the more that you can understand the mindset of each person, the better the results,” she says.

“Throughout my experience, from school to sport to business, people talk about other people; but it is not until you understand why they are the way they are and where they are coming from that you can really achieve things as a team,” Carnegie-Brown explains. “I think people would work better with each other if they understood that.”

“Within the team that I was in for the Olympics, there were very varied personalities. I am very much a positive person, but there were people who weren't and were very matter-of-fact about it. When you are in such a close-knit team, initially I might think, ‘Why are they being so negative?’ But actually, you realize your attitude doesn't really matter; it is more about how you are all dealing with a situation.” 

The Team GB rowing squad was supported by sports psychologist Chris Shambrook. It utilized a color-based personality program called Insight Discovery. It groups personality types into four colors, such as:

  • Red (competitive, demanding and strong-willed)
  • Yellow (social, enthusiastic and persuasive)
  • Green (caring, encouraging and patient)
  • Blue (cautious, precise and questioning)

While there is obviously an overlap, Carnegie-Brown found that by understanding where people sat in these categories, she could better understand why they might have a negative attitude about a situation. 

Success from failure

An area that is often overlooked when sporting metaphors are used in the business world is how important failure can be in the development of an athlete. How they react to failure can have a huge impact on their future success.

“You can learn the most from failure,” Carnegie-Brown says. “For me, I believe 100% failure is crucial to driving success; it was my biggest lesson when I was rowing. There are so many successful people out there in business and sport that have, for the majority of the time, failed, but then come through to do something remarkable. And that is because if you just constantly succeed, you never really find your barriers.”

“When I first failed, I just wanted to walk away from it,” she admits. “My initial reaction was to feel it's unfair, because you have tried really hard and then you don't get the outcome you want. But I worked really closely with the psychologists in the support team within British rowing on how to deal with failure and how to move forward.”

“We used the motto, ‘Control the controllables,’” she explains. “I had spent a lot of time worrying about things that I couldn't control and it was using all my energy. This meant when it came to opportunities where I could then perform, I was often too tired. Through failure, I learnt about focusing back on myself, about how strong you needed to be — especially on the days when you weren't achieving what you needed to — and how you move forward.

“I think that if I had not had that failure, I probably would have missed out on competing at the Olympics.”

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