Business Lessons from Top Athletes

Douglas talks to local athletes-turned-entrepreneurs to find out how high-performance sports training can translate into tools entrepreneurs can use to take their businesses to the elite level.

Study the personality traits of athletes and entrepreneurs and you will find striking similarities: they both possess a great deal of inborn tenacity, passion and confidence. Plus, they are self-driven, competitive and highly motivated to work toward their goals. 

High-performance sports training builds on those traits, honing athletes’ abilities to set goals and drive toward them with a mental toughness that gets them through the worst moments and enables them to achieve peak performance consistently under tremendous pressure. Translated into business practices, this specialized training can propel an entrepreneur in exactly the same way.

Translate Dreams into Goals, Create a Path to Reach Them
Chris Abra took his sports training straight from the Camosun College volleyball courts into business, as the director of South Island Volleyball Association, among other ventures. In 2010, former Camosun and SFU basketball player Greg Wallis recruited Abra as VP of technology at Passion Sports Custom, a sports- apparel company Wallis founded in his parents’ garage and grew into a thriving business. Abra says the key business tools he took from college sports all centre around the ability to set goals and create a solid path to reach them. 

“In sports and in business, you need the ability and desire to constantly evaluate the path you’re on — to set concrete, specific goals and then ask yourself: ‘What do I need to do to get there?’” Abra says. “When you come across hardship, you have to be able to step back and say, ‘OK, that wasn’t what I wanted, so where do I go from here?’”

Greg Wallis agrees. Athletes, he says, start with an end goal — say, winning a national championship — and then work backwards, breaking that goal down into specific and achievable tasks by the year, month and day to create the path to achieve that goal, constantly re-evaluating along the way. The same strategy, he says, works for business.

“Look ahead five years. Where do you see your business? What do you want to achieve by then? Now scale that back to today. Can you act like you’re already there? What business practices can you implement now to save time and make things better down the road?”

By starting with the end goal and working backwards, Abra and Wallis say you’ll make better decisions along the way, about everything from assembling the right team to establishing the right priorities.

Get A Coach and A Team: The Winning Combination
The team mentality is integral to an athlete’s success. “You can train or work hard on your own, but the low days will be lower, the troughs of demotivation deeper,” says Olympic rowing gold medalist Adam Kreek, who now teaches high-performance strategies for business through his company, Kreek Speak Enterprises.

Abra and Wallis say that every business owner needs to remember that, just as in sports, entrepreneurship is never a journey alone. You need to recognize that you can’t manage all aspects of your business by yourself.

“Rely on your team,” says Wallis. “Evaluate where you need help, then hire good people and get out of their way.” Focus on working for team betterment and you’ll be able to look at yourself objectively to evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, working for your team will drive your business forward.

If you’re a one-person show, your network becomes your “team.” Kreek, who works out of The Watershed co-working space, says there are many benefits to working outside the home in a shared office space where you can network with other entrepreneurs.

“Highly motivated, hardworking people produce a contagious energy that will help you achieve up days more consistently,” Kreek says. Reach out to other entrepreneurs, he suggests. Sit down over coffee with others on a similar path; share what works and doesn’t work, strategies for problem solving. And get yourself a coach.

Both Kreek and Wallis work closely with an executive coach, who provides motivation, feedback, strategies for growth and self- management practices. You can also seek out mentors, others in your profession who have come before you and can share everything they learned along the way.

“Why reinvent the wheel?” says Kreek. “Everything becomes so much simpler when you sit down with someone who has already travelled your path. That person will become someone you can reach out to for productive direction when you run into challenges.”

Competition and Winning: What’s Healthy?
“Competition is the thing that separates the average and good from the excellent,” says Chris Hinton, who works with high-performance athletes through the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence.

Athletes, he says, draw energy from the drive to win. “High performance athletes have another gear that they can shift into. When they’re tired or beat, they can still give 150 per cent.” If you’re surrounded by a good support network, that innate passion for greatness will propel you through hard times and allow you to view failures as learning opportunities.

Kreek warns that seeking to win in the business world can lead to problems, though. In sports, the wins are easily defined. But how do you define the win in business? How do you measure success? “Striving to win might drive some people through the low points,” he says. “But in other people, it might bring out their worst selves.”

Instead of relying solely on that competitive drive, Kreek says entrepreneurs must develop a sustainable work pace so they can “work as hard as they possibly can when it’s time to work, and then recover.” How is this done? By taking care of your biggest asset: you.

For an athlete, self-care is obvious. Athletes are nothing without excellent nutrition, adequate rest, physical training and stable mental health. But entrepreneurs tend to forget they also need those things. Good health is vital for the energy, mental clarity, endurance and long-term dedication they need to stay in business.

“Strategies for endurance, like meditation, regular exercise and a clean diet, take extra time,” Kreek says. “But if you take that extra time, you will see consistent peak performance.”

Photo: Adam Kreek, Olympic Gold-medal rowing champion