Beginners and Experts — What business can learn from sports

Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to drive around Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit and be taught, in my own scrabbling, dangling fashion, how to climb up sheer rock faces. While on the face of it driving a car around a ribbon of tarmac and hanging by your fingertips on a narrow ledge have little in common, perhaps surprisingly, I found an incredible similarity between both sports.

Both activities rely on our innate grasp of physics — balance and friction are absolutely key to being fast, or making it to the top of a wall. But, further than that, one of the striking similarities is around the mental preparation and training that they require. Success requires a conscious change of perspective, focusing not on the obstacle we are currently negotiating, but planning our best route to the next one. It’s all too easy when climbing to end up with no obvious next hold to move to, or to place a car in completely the wrong place on a circuit because you’ve not planned the racing line to the next corner.

These crucial similarities inspired me to seek other inspiration from sport, and I reached out to the most accomplished people I know to give me their insight. This article is based on the feedback of three people with exceptional backgrounds and understanding of different sports.

I am immensely grateful to Ironman athlete Rob Gray, professional racing driver Scott Mansell and Jim Brearly, a leadership coach who previously worked with Doncaster Rovers (and the person who mistakenly introduced me to indoor climbing). All credit for the contents of this post go to Scott, Rob and Jim, to whom I need to apologise for the length of time this article took to write. Overcome by an overwhelming sense that I needed to do justice to their words, rather than just my own train of thought, it’s taken me many months to complete.

The questions

I put the same questions to Jim, Scott and Rob, and in the main they have been quoted verbatim. I wanted to focus on the differences that were obvious between beginners and those with more experience to highlight how habitual training affected responses. With that in mind, the questions I asked were:

  1. Think about the the type of mistakes that beginners in your sport would make; for instance by taking short term gains over long term losses. How would this manifest itself?
  2. How can you prepare yourself to avoid this type of mistake? What separates an expert from a beginner?
  3. How could you apply these skills or preparation to business?

Four Essential Tips

Whilst I would encourage you to read the full interviews with Jim, Scott and Rob, there were a few key themes which were common across all three perspectives. I’ve grouped these themes together into four ‘Essential Tips’

Rob is a nine time Ironman finisher, three time Kona qualifier and triathlon coach. As if he wasn’t busy enough, his day job is Global product marketing @ Google. Follow Rob on Twitter @robgray

1) Spend time in the saddle

There’s simply no alternative to experience — whether it’s time in the driving seat, the saddle or the boardroom. This was neatly encapsulated by Rob:

“Experience has a lot to do with it. Feeling like you’re going to die for 26.2 miles is not a mistake one likes to repeat soon!”

Scott emphasised the importance of experience and training to increase confidence and address bad habits which have been developed elsewhere:

“A lack of vision is a habit formed on the road — you’re not travelling at anywhere near the speed, so you don’t need to look so far ahead. It just takes time in the seat, experience and coaching to get drivers out of this habit.”

Rob also acknowledged the issues that a lack of experience and planning can bring:

“Pacing is the perfect example. If you ride your bike too hard for 112 miles, you’re going to fall apart during the marathon. The correct pace often feels too easy, so beginners push harder than they should on the bike and then end up walking the marathon. On the other hand, if you bike too slow, you won’t be able to make up the lost time on the run. The successful athletes are the ones that ride at an intensity that is as high as possible to sustain without impacting their run performance. The same principle applies to training and preparation. The most important aspect of training is not what you can do once, but what you can do consistently across all 3 sports.”

The relationship between experience and planning is very strong. Where either experience or time spent planning are valuable on their own, the combination of both is most effective.

Jim is a management coach with a background in the RAF. In 2008, Jim was part of the coaching team responsible for coaching Doncaster Rovers to the League 1 play off final at Wembley

2) Take responsibility, give responsibility

At, we strongly believe that training junior staff is not only a responsibility but also a critical differentiator that enhances the organisation at every level. The challenge to developing ‘time in the saddle’ is in metering out responsibility at the correct rate — staff relish the opportunity to be trusted and take ownership, but it’s critical that the organisation balances the rate at which junior staff progress and take on bigger challenges.
 Jim’s experience with professional football teams allows him to assess the value of developing personal responsibility from a team perspective:

“Young players are generally not encouraged to take responsibility — this manifests itself most visibly when a team is beaten convincingly and players no longer show for the ball. Their thinking is that if they don’t make a mistake they can’t be blamed for the result.”

He goes on to explain how developing a sense of responsibility goes hand in hand with that most elusive of character traits, attitude:

“You need to instil a sense of responsibility into each player. Everyone needs to play a part in how the game (match day) should evolve and each player needs to understand their role and the impact of their behaviour on the pitch. Attitude, endeavour and application become more important than technical ability. There is often very little to separate a technically gifted player from any other player (in a given league) but players with a great attitude stand out a mile.”

One learning of my own is that great employees are often ready for responsibility long before the organisation is ready to give it to them. On many occasions my natural tendency has been to protect team members rather than allowing them to fail, which has stifled their opportunities to learn. Be brave and offer responsibility to your junior staff, but be ready to catch them if they fall. I guarantee that they’ll surprise you.

Scott is a professional racing driver and driving coach, and also the youngest driver to ever test a Formula One car. He has raced in EuroBoss and the Porsche Carrera Cup. Follow Scott on Twitter @scottkmansell

3) Plan, review, iterate

Rob’s specialism, Ironman distance triathlon, places great demands on planning both for race day and for training. One of the most crucial elements of any plan is how tasks or activities are prioritised:

“Often I see people trying to do everything, and they end up doing nothing well. Or they focus on really executing well in one area but completely neglecting another. Just as is the case with Ironman racing, in business you need to figure out the most important priorities”

Having created one plan, it’s important to then validate and iterate on that plan, improving it for next time and incorporating our learnings and the experience we’ve gained:

“I often do race day simulations, executing my plan exactly to the last detail, in a long 6–7 hour training session. That way you really get a good understanding of how your body reacts to the plan and what you need to fine tune. Racing itself is a great way of validating my plan, and I usually fine tune my plan a bit more after each race.”

The very act of planning is a useful training tool, allowing us to document our experience and communicate it in our organisations. Jim, who has a military background in the RAF is a strong proponent of the Plan/Brief/Execute/Debrief cycle. Similarly to Deming’s Plan/Do/Check/Act cycle, both are valuable methods to standardise planning and learning in your organisation.

Deming’s cycle heavily influenced the Agile Retrospective (or retro). Retros — the art of debriefing after an event — are a standard activity in Agile organisations, and an enormously valuable way to help share our experience and enhance the experience of our staff. By including entire teams, and especially junior staff, in our planning sessions and retrospectives we can expedite the process of developing organisational experience, as well as improving our plans for next time.

4) Look wider and further

Scott had a particularly strong take on the importance of training new circuit drivers to become familiar with routine actions — essentially to break bad habits and develop good ones.

“As a driver coach I come across many beginners. The single biggest mistake they make is a lack of vision — they never look far enough ahead, their vision is too narrow. Therefore, they always try to accelerate too quickly, before they’re even out of the corner. This means that they have to lift off, wait, then reapply the accelerator — losing huge amounts of time down the following straight. As soon as they learn to open up their vision — they see more of the circuit, other cars, become more consistent and ultimately quicker.”

Jim highlighted how important it is to also turn that sense of awareness and vision inwards, to be conscious of your own role and your impact on your teammates:

“It’s about understanding your core objectives and what part you play in the overall business. It’s about how you recognise your ‘value-add’ and ensure you contribute effectively. Seeing the bigger picture and understanding how other functions operate — how you can maybe support them when it’s required.”

Some of this enhancement to our perception can be trained. Self-awareness can be developed in staff with good training, regular reviews, and tools like 360 degree feedback. Awareness of and sensitivity towards your teammates can be developed with open planning sessions and good retrospectives, but the power of team lunches, beers after work or simple face to face chats shouldn’t be overlooked.


One of the strongest recommendations that I can make to anyone who has taken value from these insights is to go out and try new things (and our contributors have explained how to get started in each of their chosen sports). The inspiration for me to write this article was a startling realisation of the similarity between very different sports, and particularly how it highlighted our amazing human ability to learn and adapt.

By exposing yourself to the broadest range of experiences, with an open mind and a hunger to be taught, you may be amazed at how many lessons you can take that apply to your day job. Am I more capable in my day job because I’ve driven a Suzuki Swift around the Nurburgring Nordschleife? I’d like to think that I am.

Originally published at on April 29, 2015.

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