7 Ways To Operate Your Business Like an Elite Athlete

How your business can operate stronger, smarter, faster (and maybe even more fun), like elite players.

The difference between a gold medal and not making it to the podium is inches and milliseconds.

The difference between the highest-earning winners in golf and those who aren’t invited back on the PGA tour is a matter of a few strokes.

The difference between a game-winning home run and a game-losing pop-up is centimeters.

High-performance athletes push the boundaries of human potential in every practice, mental preparation, warm-up, and competition for centuries. Their excellence takes the form of running sub-four-minute miles, hitting a baseball so it soars 500 feet, adding one more double-backflip to a balance beam dismount, scoring 16 goals in a single soccer match.

If elite athletes can attain these heights of human excellence by putting their talent to such hard work, why don’t we follow the same model in business?

Why do so many business professionals and organization founders, in fact, operate in the opposite way elite athletes do in pursuit of achievement?

What would happen if we trained our business minds like we were qualifying for the Olympics? What professional records might we break if we committed like a Rapinoe, a Jordan, a Williams, a Biles, or a Messi?

As a former collegiate athlete that grew increasingly obsessed with the mental side of competitive athletics, and now an executive coach, I invite you into the overlap of top-tier business and top-ranked athletics. Here’s how your business can operate stronger, smarter, faster (and maybe even more fun), like elite players.

You cannot compete at the highest level of human performance without clear goals. For some teams, that is a world championship, for others, it is hiring Employee #2. For all high-achievers, those goals are specific and communicated repeatedly and calibrate exactly what we work on every day.

Michael Jordan’s all-consuming goal to win an NBA championship plays out in the docuseries The Last Dance. Every practice, every strategy revolves around achieving this one goal (and then again, and again, and you know how the story goes). Six NBA championships and now more 20 years later, Jordan immediately identifies his sole driver during that era.

Elite athletes have medium-term and short-term goals that support the big goals. Like Jordan, they can also rattle off what they’re working on tomorrow, this week, and next month to get to the championship. Achievable steps, like placing first in the divisional or shaving time off of one event, keep them moving forward on pace.

How many of your employees can immediately name the organization’s big goal and it’s supporting medium and short goals? How many team members are fluent in their own individual work goals? Do you know your own?

Be the Bulls for a bit, and define, articulate, and communicate your team goals repeatedly (threepeatedly) so it is ingrained into daily and weekly practices, a part of everyday conversation, and the center of your shared experience. Ask each of the elites who work within your own organization to do the same with their individual goals, too.

Putting #1 Into Practice

First, ask yourself if you know the company’s long-term, medium-term, and short-term goals. If not, then you need to start with yourself and the leadership team by defining those goals. If you do know your goals, then ask a random sampling of team members to quickly articulate them. If they can’t answer on the spot, this communication challenge is now your number-one priority to manage. Make the goals as clear as possible, and even though it might feel like overkill, say them, write them, and share them over and over again. Once you have the company aligned, take it a step further and encourage everyone to create and share their personal goals.

We’ve all read about the fascinating rituals of the highest-performing athletes as they step up to the platform, field, court, or starting line. Touch a shoulder three times, tie the left cleat first, only wear the orange headband, don’t even think of shaving until the Stanley Cup is in hand.

While we might chalk it up to superstitious quirks, there is something to the consistency athletes at this level love. Predictable routines give athletes a secure sense of where they’re going, what they’re doing, what they need to work on, and what they can control in such an uncontrollable and unpredictable setting. There’s a crucial ease in knowing warm-ups begin every morning at 6 am, the red uniform is always for away games, we always end with passing drills.

Inconsistent routines, on the other hand, are mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting because your brain is constantly adjusting to what is going on and what it should be focused on.

Just like Steve Jobs wearing the same thing every day, consistent routines offer athletes the ability to reduce the amount of clutter between them and their performance.

For example, here’s an example of Tiger Woods’ schedule from a few years ago:

  • He started his mornings with a four-mile run.
  • Followed by weightlifting at the gym.
  • Followed by a practice session at the driving range for 2–3 hours.
  • Followed by a round of golf.
  • Followed by short-game practice.
  • Then he went for another four-mile run.
  • And to top it off, he finished his day by playing basketball or tennis.

You can see that everything he does throughout his day is dialed in so that he doesn’t have to think about what he’s doing that day.

What does your schedule look like? How about your team? Your company? Having a routine enables you and your team to trust and focus on what is in front of you.

Putting #2 Into Practice

Set up a pre-work routine for every day of the week that includes consistent and actionable behaviors that you can rely on. This may include focused time with your family, reading, and catching the train to the office. Then move on to work, and set up a consistent work routine with blocked time for specific activities that are unmovable. Finally, set up an evening routine that enables you to mentally and emotionally transition back into your home life such as a quick meditation or a walk around the block.

Get your team on board by implementing unchanging agendas and steady dates and times for one-on-one and group meetings. Then stick to them. This will be uncomfortable at first, but early consistency is key. Do not cancel or reschedule these meetings unless absolutely necessary so that you and your team can begin to rely on a predictable day and then move your energies to more important focus areas.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing differences between elite athletes and business professionals is the difference in their distribution of practice and performance time. Elite athletes often spend 70% to 95% of their dedicated time on the sport in practice sessions. Business professionals rarely practice, if ever. Simply practicing is a huge opportunity for companies and individuals to gain a competitive edge.

But first, let’s define practice. Practice is not just the act of doing the sport –a golfer hitting a large bucket of balls at the driving range, a figure skater hammering through triple salchows for an hour, or a basketball player shooting around. Practice is the process of deliberate learning, which means having a clear learning goal, a clear focus area, and the process of slowly working through the bumps of learning something new.

For a tennis pro, this might be slowing their swing down to the component parts and addressing a singular motion in the weight room. Or for a baseball player working on hitting the baseball to the opposite field.

Practice is deliberate, focused, and intentional.

Because business professionals don’t have the luxury of time, especially in hyper-growth companies, it is unrealistic to spend 70% of the day practicing and only 30% performing. Instead, you can accelerate the growth of the company by integrating deliberate practice into daily routines. Practice listening more in one-on-ones. Use quick keys to speed up email responses. Try out new sales techniques with other team members.

Get clear and concise about what you want to learn, break that down to component parts, set aside, or integrate time to practice. Then get creative and encourage your employees to come up with new ideas.

If you’re practicing correctly, it should be difficult and include bumps along the way. Just like mastering surfing requires falling off the board, learning anything new will be uncomfortable.

Putting #3 Into Practice:

Pick an area of your professional life that you would like to improve. First, set a goal around this area with a defined picture of what success looks like, including how you’ll know if you’re improving. Second, look for guidance about how to best achieve your goal. Third, break down the new skill into its component parts. Fourth, integrate this deliberate practice into every single day.

For example, let’s say you want to improve your sales abilities. First, define what a successful sales conversation might look like and how you’ll notice you’re improving. Secondly, you might look for guidance from a sales methodology that resonates with you. Third, focus on just one component of that methodology. Fourth, do it!

One advantage elite athletes have over business professionals is that they operate in defined constraints with clear benchmarks. For example, a professional soccer field is the same size no matter where you are in the world, the game is always played with the same rules, and a scoreboard counts the time of play and number goals. As business professionals, we don’t have the same constraints to work within or consistent benchmarks to measure ourselves against. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t create our own.

Benchmarking shows us where we are, how we’re doing, and what we want to do next.

“The ultimate point of building greater trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability is one thing: the achievement of results,” writes Patrick Lencioni in his book The Advantage.

That certainly seems obvious, but one of the greatest challenges to team success is inattention to results.

“Some people find this extreme emphasis on results to be a little cold and uninspiring,” Lencioni continues. “But there is no getting around the fact that the only measure of a great team–or a great organization–is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish.”

The bottom line is that we need to know the size of the playing field and how to keep score so that we can benchmark ourselves and our organization, identify what we want to work on, and continue to improve.

Benchmarks don’t have to be financial or about winning in spite of others, but rather are about knowing where you and your organization are now, compared to where you were. Without clear ways to measure what you’re working on, you cannot truly know what is and isn’t working, and how to improve.

Consider this the world-class sprinter test. If you never time your sprints, how will you measure your 100-meter dash? How will you know if your practice regiments are working? How will you know if you’re improving? How will you know what goals to set next? How will you understand if you’re competitive at all? Keeping score is essential to knowing how to improve.

Putting #4 Into Practice

Remember those goals you outlined above? Now identify specific ways to measure your goals and keep score. If your clear goal is to grow your organization by 10% in Q4, what does this mean specifically? Is that in sales or in hires? Is that customer loyalty or product launches? How will you keep score? What indicators will let you know if you’re on track or not? How will you benchmark throughout the quarter? Set those benchmarks for yourself and your team, then use them diligently as a measure of success and learning.

For all the goal-setting and goal-getting that elite athletes do, an undiscussed part of their performance formula is doing nothing at all.

I once visited a family member who was a professional basketball player currently midway through his season. He did something I didn’t expect at all from a pro–he slept a lot. In fact, he logged about ten hours of sleep a night and then spent game days watching movies and relaxing before heading to the arena to suit up. When he wasn’t on court or working out, he enjoyed restful activities, like leisurely walks and playing board games.

He, like many other elite athletes, works hard and rests hard. Pros know that rest is essential for their physical recovery but it’s also essential for their mental and emotional well-being. While business professionals may not all be able to sleep for ten full hours or binge movies before big meetings, we can definitely find ways to integrate more downtime into our days.

Imagine an elite athlete practicing their sport, lifting weights, and performing in races and games for 12 nonstop hours a day. It wouldn’t take long before their performance would fall off a cliff. However, many business professionals operate in this way. They work extremely long hours during the day with back-to-back meetings, conference calls, and constant demands. During their time off the clock, they can barely get through dinner without responding to emails, believe that they have to rise before dawn to listen to business podcasts while on the elliptical, and then use Sunday afternoons to prep for the week ahead. How do you suppose their performance is doing against their potential? How might a little more rest make them more productive, invested, and clear-minded? How might you?

Putting #5 Into Practice

Rest takes many forms. There is no tried-and-true method that works for every professional. What matters is that you find restful activities that work for your body, brain, and life. Rest might look like reorganizing your calendar into one- to two-hour blocks with 15-minute walk breaks in between. It may look like turning your devices off at night or on the weekend. Or purchasing black-out curtains and a nice sound machine to improve your sleep space. Whatever you do, the goal is to create more rest and recovery throughout your days and weeks so that you can do your best work. Then be sure to ask your team members how they are incorporating rest into their schedules.

In addition to rest, elite athletes prioritize the well-being of their bodies through focused exercise and food regiments. Physical exercise and eating the right foods for their body are paramount for their success. While both of these activities certainly increase their physical capabilities on the court, they also create a dramatic improvement to their mental and emotional capabilities.

For example, world-class sprinter and one of the most decorated American Olympians of all time, Alysson Felix, doesn’t count calories, carbs, or do intermittent fasting. She asks herself one question, “How does this food make me feel?” How do you feel throughout your day? How can fitness and nutrition improve the way you feel and subsequently how you show up at work.

If you want to improve your mental and emotional capabilities, which directly translate to how you lead, think, and problem solve at work, integrate a fitness routine as well as a healthy-food habit to improve the way you feel. And if you integrate #5, more rest, you should be able to find more time for your fitness and health as well.

Putting #6 Into Practice

Start small and don’t push it. Just like deliberate practice asks you to focus on the component parts, don’t try to go all-in on your fitness and health. Integrate walking meetings or carve out ten minutes to do a bodyweight exercise routine, like a plank challenge. Instead of modifying every meal, change up your breakfast options to something healthier (like a fruit and veggie smoothie you can make and take). Even tiny tweaks can make a big impact.

Elite athletes increasingly depend on the wisdom and guidance of sports psychologists. I was introduced to sports psychology as a collegiate baseball player when I met Dr. Ken Ravizza, co-author of Heads Up Baseball. I kept Dr. Ravizza’s book in my locker, pulling it out to study before every game. Today, I rely on it as a reference guide for conversations with my coaching clients, merging the worlds of executive and athletic leadership with every passage I read and reread.

Dr. Ravizza’s and co-author Tom Hanson’s cutting-edge techniques and the sports psychology industry are now a fundamental part of athlete training as it’s believed that elite sports performance is 10% physical and 90% mental.

When we see Alex Honnold free-scale a vertical rock formation or Serena Williams slam balls on the court or Michael Phelps rocket through the water, we are astounded by their physical power. But the best of the elites are catapulted because they are even more mentally tough than muscular.

Because a win or a record or advancing to the next level often comes down to single points, milliseconds, or centimeters, those athletes know they have to be mentally locked in for each play, event, and season. The demand for sports psychologists has grown dramatically in the last two decades as more athletes have seen how much training their mental game matters.

“…most players leave the mental game to chance, not realizing that a strong mental game can be developed.” — Heads Up Baseball by Dr. Ken Ravizza and Tom Hanson

Elite athletes use sports psychology practices to visualize dismounting the pommel horse or rounding the tricky corners of the cycling course or handing off the baton to the next runner. They meditate and integrate mindfulness so they can stay present to the situation and let go of past mistakes. They conjure up how they want to feel in that day’s practice or after the next win.

Most business professionals rely solely on their minds to succeed, which means our mental game likely needs even more attention and training. How can you and your team incorporate mindfulness, visualization, and other sports psychology practices into your regular routines so that your minds stay challenged, sharp, focused, and open?

Putting #7 Into Practice

Your mental training will probably look very different from your co-founder’s or your new-hire’s. Rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all formula, read a few books by sports psychologists, cutting edge scientists, and journalists to inspire how their findings might apply to you and your organization. Or start a lunchtime book group with your team members to discuss what inspires you about this modality. Here are a few recommended titles:

Elite athletes push performance boundaries every day, which is exactly what most business leaders want to do. Suiting up, this time like Gwen Jorgensen or Roger Federer may give you the structure, goals, focus, and fortitude you need to be elite in your own industry.

For more on the intersection of leadership and elite athletics, be sure to subscribe to the Reboot channel for a forthcoming piece about the shadow side of elite athletics and what can happen when we merge our identities with outcomes.