Sports have Limited Lessons for Business

A recent article on the BBC Business pages examined the question of whether sporty women make better entrepreneurs.  There are growing claims for the parallels between sport and business.  Many motivational speakers and personal coaches with a background in sport insist that sport is a fundamental metaphor for business and that the two are similar in the skills and attitudes needed for success.   The BBC article says that ‘Experts say sport in general teaches the value of teamwork, discipline and willpower – as well as creating the physical stamina necessary for long hours and a gruelling workload.’

Are the claims made for the benefits of sport in business justified or exaggerated?  Competitive sport does have some parallels in business as mentioned above – mainly in teamwork, planning and execution.  However, in many important respects business is fundamentally different from sport and requires different skills.  Here are some of the key differences:

1.  Creativity and Innovation.  A key requirement in business is to find new and better ways to meet customer needs – sometimes by finding an entirely new business model.  Companies are constantly striving to find new products, services, processes, partnerships and routes to market.  The opportunities for innovation in sport are very limited.  Can you name one major innovation introduced by a sports person since the Fosbury Flop 45 years ago?

2.  Rules and Regulations.  Sports are played within a strict and limiting set of codified rules.  If you break them you are disqualified or penalised.  In business the customer is the referee.  You can break almost any rule and get away with it provided the customer likes it (and you stay legal).  For example Southwest, RyanAir and Easyjet broke nearly all the business rules that the established airlines used.  They did not issue tickets or have allocated seating or give free cups of tea.  Apple broke the rules of the music business with downloads and iTunes.  Where are the sporting parallels here?

3.  Resource Allocation.  You cannot play for more than 90 minutes and you cannot field more than 11 players in a soccer team no matter how much you want to win the game.  In business you can put 1 person or 1000 on your new product team.  You can deploy resources in all manner of ways to achieve your goals.

4.  Customer Focus.  Sport is all about beating the competition but if you are working in care for the elderly or a hospital you are not concerned about beating the competition.  You are concerned about collaborating with your colleagues to get the best outcomes for the client.  In business you are focused on the customer – not the competition.  Sport is about beating the opposition.  Business is about pleasing the customer.

5.  Strategy vs Tactics.  There are very few strategic decisions in sport.  Most of the decisions that teams or individuals make are tactical and are selected from a very limited playbook of tactics.  In business strategy is crucial and offers enormous scope for getting it right or wrong.  Nearly all of the big questions in business are strategic – e.g. What are we going to do?  Nearly all of the big questions in sport are tactical – e.g. How are we going to do it?.  When the Arsenal manager prepares to play Chelsea he has to make a range of tactical decisions.  When BP decide whether or not to invest in a Russian joint venture they are making a strategic choice.

Sport is fine for entertainment, exercise and recreation.  It has some limited lessons for business but let’s keep them in perspective.

Paul Sloane


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One thought on “Sports have Limited Lessons for Business

  1. I like the article and your view point which gives a good start for debate Paul, but I don’t quite agree.

    For context, my sporting background is in skydiving and BASE jumping (some would deem these activities as hobbies or just insane risks but they are often the uneducated that don’t understand). I compete internationally but also undertake activities that would be seen as being an Adventurer. I have also managed a business so I feel I can see both sides.

    I’ll hit your 5 points in turn:

    1. Creativity and Innovation: All serious sportsmen (and their teams) strive for this. They need whatever competitive advantage they can take. In my sport, wingsuit technology continues to improve through innovation and creativity from the designers. Canopy technology has also improved significantly as have the techniques that competitors use.

    2. Rules and Regulations. Businesses also have these, from tax (which some businesses try to ‘bend’) to a moral and ethical code. Rules can provide freedoms and not just limitations. When competing in Canopy Formations my team re-interpreted the rules and used a new grip technique that allowed us to transition in about 1 second rather than a traditional 3 seconds. Look at how Tim Ferriss won (controversially) his Chinese Kick Boxing title.

    3. Resource Allocation. You talk about time ‘on the field’ but every athlete has to train as well. You can do an hour a week or 12 hours a day – resource allocation can be undertaken in a huge manner of ways and can be critical to sporting success.

    4. Customer Focus. In this day and age many professional sportsmen need sponsors to get where they’re going. To achieve that they need to be fully attuned to the customer. Sport is not just about beating the opposition but also about achieving your best – something that the customer will also want.

    5. Strategy. In the short term the focus is, indeed, on the tactical. Yet, in all walks of life, the strategy comes in to play. Professional sport has strategy just as much as business.

    Sporting claims, from the right people, are justified. At the end of the day it also comes down to individuals. In sport and business there are great people and not so great people; we all have different complimentary life lessons.

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