5 Blunt Lessons About Entrepreneurship That I Learned From Athletes

Do what you love. Put in the time. Learn from your mistakes. Teamwork. Grit.

At this point, the cliché of comparing sports to business and management are as old as time.

Yes, high performers across all fields, whether CEOs or Super Bowl quarterbacks, do tend to have some common professional characteristics, personality traits, habits, lifestyles, and verbiage. They often say the same things in different words, so consuming their insights can feel redundant. 

However, as a strength and conditioning coach, I spend a lot of time around athletes when they don’t have their media faces on. 

That is, I get to see the real faces and phases of high performers when they’re tired, when they’re injured, when they’ve underperformed, but also when they’ve recovered, improved, and won.

From those moments with my athletes, I took some brutally honest lessons about the journey of entrepreneurship. 

1. You won’t be self-motivated very often. Be ready.

There is a common misconception that if 1) you do what you enjoy and/or 2) you make 7+ figures doing it, you’re going to be motivated all day everyday. Nope.

The life of a competitive athlete can be a nightmare to balance. Weekly training schedules. Team meetings. Travel schedules. Game days. Media. Fan and community obligations. Public expectation. All have to be balanced with some semi-reasonable amount of sleep and food to be remotely functional. God forbid an athlete have family, work or school responsibilities as well.

Add up all of those factors and you have, most likely, a tired athlete. And it’s hard to remain fueled simply by your love of the game when you’re exhausted by it. 

This resonates in business; while you may not have a rigorous physical training schedule, you are likely traveling, strategising, selling, producing, and building within your company, as well as managing staff. You also probably have non-work obligations. And you’ve probably dragged through that begrudging after-hours phone meeting when you really needed to sleep.

Coming to terms with the fact that it’s completely normal to not feel motivated all the time is important. Waning motivation doesn’t make you any less of a leader or less dedicated to your work. Surround yourself with people who you can discuss fluxes with and help you readjust your own expectations, as well as people who can hype you up when you need it the most. Notice how your motivation shifts and adjust any circumstances you can control.

2. Self-assessment is key. Learn how to adjust and improve. 

“In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” — Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus 

Feedback should not originate entirely from a singular source. Though an athlete ought to take performance evaluations from her coach into serious thought, she will also review performance with friends, teammates, other staff, and… the self. 

Likewise, it would be unwise for an athlete to ignore all external feedback and rely solely on his self-assessment. Outside views are immensely helpful; the view from the stands is different from the one on the court.

Athletes must learn how to be brutally honest with themselves and regulate their emotions properly in order to succeed in appropriate and beneficial self-evaluation. When they can be honest with and in control of their feelings, they can then tackle their ability to be adaptable to the feedback of others. 

In a world full of self-help books and social media gurus, self-assessment is also a key in the entrepreneurial world. Learning to be completely frank with yourself to know when to ask for help, to fire someone you like, to take out a loan, or to move into a better location is vital.

Becoming proficient in self-assessment has the added benefits of boosting one’s confidence and communication skills. You deeply get to know yourself, and you are constantly clear on your deepest values, on your performance or status, on your vision and goal. Then you can speak from that honest and (hopefully) authentic place. It benefits the culture of your company and client relations — it becomes genuine, open, adaptable, and realistic. 



3. Your team’s top contributors might be the quietest. Don’t discount anyone.

While the public might praise certain players for their talent, star power, outrageous collection of goals, and full trophy cabinet, every member of any team knows who the top contributors are. 

“Stars” tend to be noticed for being exquisite and loud, but they are often just faces. Observe those who serve as the motor to your team’s Mercedes. Who do team members look to as their leader on the field? Who contributes the most to boosting the morale of the group? Who always puts in the extra work, even when not asked?

Look for the players (employees) who have invested the most in your team. Keep and value them, and do not mistake their quietness or humility for weakness. Those people are invaluable to your institution. As Simon Sinek said, “leaders eat last”.

4. Failure is inevitable. Make friends with it.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” — Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

There are (not shockingly) very few people in high performance sports who enjoy failing. Whether it means a loss, an injury, a subpar performance, or simply not meeting one’s own expectations, it can be painful and frustrating. 

Failure is scary because we feel like we have something to lose. Maybe you do. Maybe it’s the championship in the last season of your career before retirement. Maybe it’s a multi-million-dollar client that your company really needs to stay in the black this year. 

However, as Dr. Brené Brown says, if you aren’t failing, you aren’t really showing up anyway. While you certainly may never enjoy failing, it shouldn’t permanently damage you physically, psychologically, or professionally. Maybe it will never get easier. But learn to take it as an answer, not a death sentence. 

5. The best work really does happen when you actually love “it”.

While this point may seem contradictory to #1, they are truly in sync. There is a significant difference between playing or working because you love the money, status, and grind versus doing it because you love the it, the experience of actually playing or working. 

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi named this phenomenon “Flow”, defined as the feeling of complete focus on a task or activity while experiencing enjoyment in the moment. Some athletes report feeling superhuman during the experience of Flow, that their game comes effortlessly. 

While cash flow may be the preferred flavour of Flow in the business world, this phenomenon is still valuable. When a new startup founder truly enjoys the creation of his technology, or when the serial entrepreneur just really feels fulfilled through the process of starting a new business, they can achieve their own breed of peak performance. 

You pour your soul into it. You feel superhuman, with eternal endurance and laser vision of the future, per se. You don’t let failure end you. You never give up. There is too much joy in those moments of playing and creating.

And that’s the breeding ground for your very best work, whether there’s a ball at your feet or a room of investors in front of you.