Mind games of business and sport the perfect match

Professional sports players, like business leaders, know the road to success is tough. but techniques the top athletes use are also transferable to the corporate world.

Wayne Rooney of Manchester United shoots during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford. He said visualisation is a vital part of his preparation for a big game. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
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LONDON // Few fans settling down to watch the English FA cup semi-final games tomorrow and Sunday will be wondering if football could help to defend a business against rivals, or tackle a region’s economic woes.

Indeed, turning on the TV to catch a match does not immediately sound like top priority for executives busy grappling with the impact of, say, the oil crash.

But business leaders wanting to hit their goals can learn a lot from sport, psychologists say.

Athletes’ techniques of visualising success, preparing and reviewing performances, and qualities of determination and self-confidence are said to translate especially well to the corporate environment.

One expert on the topic, who has advised businesses and government institutions in the UAE, says the sport and corporate worlds have much in common.

“They’re both pressurised, they’re both chaotic, they’re both fast-moving. But many of the principles that underpin performance are actually the same,” says John Neal, the director of the sports business programme at the United Kingdom’s Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School.

Mr Neal has his own performance coaching business and has worked with clients as varied as the UK royal household, Weight Watchers and the British military – as well as teams participating in the Olympic Games and World Cup.

“Leadership is much the same whether you’re leading a group of business people, or if you’re leading a group of sports people,” he tells The National.

Businesses are increasing turning to sports psychology in search of techniques to improve performance, says another academic in the field.

Dr Martin Turner, a lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at Staffordshire University in the UK, is the co-author of the book What Business Can Learn from Sport Psychology.

One of the key lessons he cites is visualisation – something used by many of the world’s top sports stars.

The England and Manchester United football player Wayne Rooney, for example, in 2012 revealed that this technique forms a vital part of his preparation for a big game. “I go and ask the kit man what colour we’re wearing – if it’s red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks. Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals,” Rooney, the United captain, told ESPN at the time.

Dr Turner says this technique is similarly useful in the corporate world. Just like Rooney, executives can get a performance and confidence boost by visualising what they will say in a meeting and even seemingly trifling details like where they will be and what they will be wearing.

“They can visualise themselves dealing with the pressure of presenting in front of difficult people,” says Dr Turner. “It’s almost like a mental blueprint in the brain. And the brain starts to think, ‘I’ve done this before’, because you’ve visualised it so realistically.”

Dealing with everyday pressure is another area in which business people can learn from sports stars – although that skill is harder to develop.

That said, approaching your job with an athlete’s “performance mindset” can also help those in the corporate world, says the UK-based sports psychologist Dr Steve Bull, the author of The Game Plan and a consultant to many businesses and sports teams.

“Although you’re not wearing a tracksuit or kicking a ball around, from a mental perspective your approach is pretty similar to that of an elite athlete,” he says.

Developing a “strong mental game plan” and the sports-coaching concept of “plan, do, review” is extremely useful for business people looking to reach peak performance, says Dr Bull.

“One of the biggest mistakes busy business people make is that they lurch from one performance to the next,” he says. “Their calendars are absolutely jam-packed – and they literally go from one meeting to another: phone calls, business lunch, straight back into another meeting. And what they are not therefore able to do is employ the ‘plan, do, review’ performance cycle … Most business people don’t think about this – they just do the middle bit, which is the ‘do’.”

Dr Bull says there are also very practical ways in which business people can learn from sports stars: by being physically fit – what he called the “corporate athlete”.

Yet it is not a one-way street – and the sports world has plenty to learn from business, too.

Mr Neal says sports teams can benefit from the good governance, in-depth research, financial management and organisational structures seen in some businesses. He points to the 2011 film Moneyball, based on a true account of how an American baseball team used an analytical, statistics-based system to assemble a team of highly effective, but undervalued, players. Adopting a more business-like approach to the team selection brought real success in the leagues.

“If you combine the passion and emotion of sport, with the theory and rigour of businesses, you’ve got a pretty powerful model,” says Mr Neal.

But while there are many parallels between sports and business, the model has its shortcomings. For example, businesses should not evaluate success in the simple terms of “win, lose and draw” common in sport, says Mr Neal.

“Just because you didn’t win the contract, it may well have been that the person who did went in at a very low price, and won’t be able to deliver,” he says. “The team that won 4-0 may have had just better players, but could be badly led.”

So how can sports psychology help in a country such as the UAE, where many businesses are currently wary of the fallout from the oil-price crash? Mr Neal says UAE firms need to be agile – and adds he recently visited Abu Dhabi to advise an energy company, whom he did not name, on this very matter. “The key message we looked at was coaching. When you don’t have the ability to buy in skill, you have to develop it internally. So the analogy there is ‘make the most of the players you’ve got, don’t spend more money’,” says Mr Neal.

“The ability of the leaders to coach and motivate the team they have, to be the best that they can be, is the answer when the pressure is on.”