I love sports. They have had a tremendous positive influence on my life, and I can trace some of the most valuable lessons I have learned from the football field, the wrestling mat and the track. I am an enthusiastic fan of my kid’s sports teams, my college lacrosse and hockey teams, and the Denver Broncos. I am the CEO of a company focused on sports, TeamSnap, and I derive enormous satisfaction knowing we are helping millions of people around the world participate in sports activities.
As in almost any kind of human activity, we can learn a lot from sports. I enjoyed reading about how Germany’s dismantling of Brazil in the recent World Cup comprised an effective pivot. Sometimes, though, folks take it a little too far. Just as with analogies to war or interpersonal relationships, sports analogies start to break down if we take them beyond a certain point.
We have all been taught some of the ways that sports mirror business: the importance of strong leadership and teamwork, the satisfaction of working towards a common goal, and the value of hard work and sacrifice. It is important to keep in mind, though, the ways in which business is different, the ways in which it does not really track the characteristics of sports:
• Time frame — Great business take years to build. Sports teams are typically focused on a season. A few look out two or three seasons, and almost none, though the Chicago Bulls and a few other teams will in retrospect claim “dynasty,” are worrying about anything longer than that.
• Number of people on the team — Even a young company will have hundreds of employees, while the largest may have tens of thousands. The largest major team sport in the US is football, with 53-man rosters. Throw in the coaches, trainers, water boys and girls, and other miscellaneous hangers on, and maybe you have a hundred.
• The goal — The goal for a business is to provide a return for the company’s owners or lenders, make a positive contribution to its customers and communities, and provide a fulfilling experience for its employees. In sports, the goal is more prosaic. For individual sports, it is to go faster, farther or higher than the other guy. For martial sports, it is to beat, often literally, the other guy. For team sports, it is typically to get more balls across a line or into a net more times than the other team.
• Complexity — The range of activities a business must successfully execute far exceeds that of a team. Sure, folks on a team often have specific specialties and knowledge (e.g. Moneyball). And the challenge of scoring, whether it’s on the field, court or golf course, takes skill and stamina. It doesn’t compare however with the myriad activities that many businesses perform, from developing new technologies to serving millions of customers.
• Impact — Businesses and the profits they create can change the world. Think about the impact of even recent companies like Google and Facebook. One can argue that a championship changes the mood of a nation — maybe even gets a few more kids to play a sport — but 20 years from now it will be hard to trace the impact of that Super Bowl, World Cup or Little League game lost or won.
Let’s have fun with sports. Let’s draw lessons from them that we can apply to our lives and our endeavors, including our businesses. Let’s not think of them, though, as providing an answer to everything we wrestle with in business.