Is It Fair To Compare Business To Sports?

Aug 18, 2017 10 Min Read
Much Can be Learnt From Sports


“Sport has the power to change the world,” – Nelson Mandela.

Look at how sport captures the attention of the world during the Olympics or any other big sporting event and you will quickly understand its power. Sport has the power to bring cultures, nationalism and passion together.

Sport teaches us many skills, and strongly reinforces many personal qualities – mental toughness, perseverance, grit, resolve, tenacity – the same qualities needed in business. Strategically, sport and business share qualities such as planning, review, execution, implementation and monitoring.

So, it isn’t unusual for sporting metaphors to be used as an enabler to help people visualise and work towards success. This power is not recent. In fact, the English language is peppered with sporting metaphors which date back to the 17th century where the major sporting games of the times were poker and horse racing – when terms such as “neck and neck with our competitors” first came into common usage.

However, in a recent Harvard Business Review article Bill Taylor argued that sport has no relevance to business or leadership, in his fittingly titled piece, “Why Sports Are A Terrible Metaphor For Business”.

Taylor believes that sport and business operate differently, citing the differences in the definition of success, talent handling, and the ownership of teams.

Just as Taylor has outlined specific examples, sport has many differing lessons from which we can learn, especially when we align specific challenges and opportunities that each different business can face with a relevant sporting example. With this is mind, sport will always be a good metaphor for business.

Taylor describes success in sport as a zero-sum competition where only one team or athlete can win and all other participants lose. Whereas in business, it is all about economic value and “delighting and amazing customers”.

Is it possible that these people who question the relevance of sport to business have never been totally immersed in the sporting world, working at the ground level in the training of athletes, or seeing the ground-breaking work being done by some of these sporting organisations for their customers.

sports and leadership

If the only goal is to win, then yes, you may be playing a zero-sum game, but no team or athlete goes into competition with this as their only goal. Sure, there are events they want to win but, for athletes, there are other goals that underline the aim of winning such as enjoyment of the game, or improving their performance and skills. After all, athletes must start somewhere.

For sporting organisations, it could be to make more money in the future, and provide fans with a good experience. The big sporting teams understand this well, creating economic value and “delighting and amazing customers”, in a way that would put many businesses to shame.

After all, is there any difference between the ongoing battle of Apple and Samsung to win the mobile phone supremacy? Someone loses the battle with each new version launched.

Taylor so rightly argues that competition for business is focused on improving their economic value through increased revenues or decreasing costs. These results don’t just happen by themselves but rely on three key elements: performance, opportunity, and engagement.

Without delving into too much detail, examples of these elements include performance of the staff to deliver consumer “needs” at lowest cost, seizing opportunities in new markets and lastly, engagement, building relationships with the consumer and the brand.

The same three elements are at the forefront in the aim of sport, being, “to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants, and in some cases, entertainment for spectators”. In other words – performance, opportunity and engagement.


Performance drives success

Success in sport is governed by our performance – when we perform better we have more success, be it by winning the game or creating a new personal best.

At the individual level, improved athletic performance is a coordinated effort from athletes, coaches, scientists and other professionals. Much like the business community with its shareholders, suppliers, partners and, most importantly, employees.

Sport provides performance metaphors at all levels within a business for improved performance and, ultimately, success. For example, in business, at the production line level, questions could arise as to “how do we help them perform better?”

The sporting elite just don’t get to where they are without constant assessment and enhancement of athletic capacity. Many of the techniques and principles employed in improving Olympic performance are the same ones utilised in teaching a novice some basic skills.

The parallels between sport and business success also equate to time – sustained success is not achieved in the window of a one-off game. In sport, athletes need perseverance and commitment for them to see continued success throughout their journey.

Sport demands being committed to years of training. Perseverance and belief is a mindset required to enable athletes to recover from the highs and lows of sport.

The best coaches know that teaching a growth mindset will develop committed athletes who are, ultimately, more likely to achieve greater long-term success. Similarly, employing information derived from neuroscience, coaches now implement new goal-setting methods to continually stimulate athletes to be more motivated towards both their goals and the competition.

At the elite level, sport provides great illustrations of best practices in leadership. Sporting coaches are leading the way in leadership change and innovation.

With the workforce soon to be majority made up of Millennials who learn faster than any previous generation, it is important that business leaders discover some of the lessons occurring in sport.

These coaches are having a profound impact, not just on the results of a team and the development of players, but also in educating the business world that partnership – not leadership – is the way of the future.

The gold medal coach of the Australian Women’s Sevens rugby team, Tim Walsh, provides the perfect example of allowing team members’ involvement in the decision-making process. His team was made up of women from a smorgasbord of sports, from Ellia Green (athletics), to Chloe Dalton (an ex-Sydney Flames basketball player).

When Walsh first started with the team, he believed that he would need to teach the women all aspects of the game, from technical skills to the play strategies. Over time he found that it was he who was getting a lesson on strategy.

These women with transferable skills from other sports were soon asking “why don’t we do this” or “why don’t we do that?” The women alerted Walsh to the fact that for improved performance, his leadership style needed to be accepting of the fact that he was directing others with both more knowledge and creativity than he.

Just like Walsh, business leaders must understand that Millennials will consistently challenge the notion that established methods are superior or better, and are always quick to question ‘why?’ They are tech-savvy, searching for that elusive answer or solution.

When left unanswered, they will soon jump ship for something better. Leaders must know how to partner with this generation and their talent for future innovation and adaption, or these employees, will soon jump ship and create their own thriving start-up.

There are many stories from sport that can motivate employees, improve leadership performance and, ultimately, improve business efficiency.


Opportunities are out there!

Let’s discuss Taylor’s point around the creation of economic value being different between most sporting teams and most businesses. He deems that a single-owner sporting conglomeration has no place in teaching lessons to billion-dollar businesses, which are owned by shareholders and governed by a board of directors.

Just for the record, most sporting organisations are owned by its members or shareholders and are answerable to them. The Australian Football League (AFL) with its individual club member revenues would be one example of a billion-dollar sporting entity.

However, individual ownership of sporting organisations can provide valuable lessons for the business world, such as those seen in the American National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) where individual ownership has forged both a name for themselves and established billion-dollar ventures.

Young entrepreneurs who are changing the landscape of business, and developing businesses that are valued in the millions overnight can learn much from these sporting leaders. In the business world, the success rate of new start-up ventures is extremely low.

Young entrepreneurs need to look no further than Joe Lacob, Golden State Warriors (GSW) owner. Lacob is a brilliant example of failing at his first attempt at sporting ownership.

Lacob invested in the American Basketball League, a professional women’s basketball league that eventually folded from failure to compete successfully with its rival, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). In 2010, Lacob acquired GSW, and has worked hard to develop an organisation that is outperforming all other NBA teams significantly.

During his ownership, GSW has moved from a value of $500million to today’s $2.6 billion. Much of Lacob’s success can be attributed to providing opportunities for innovation and for his employees to step outside the traditional sporting arena. His drive to create opportunities has also resulted in a large increase of new viewers through his innovative means.

Taylor cites short-term loyalties from players and teams run by “tyrants” as reasons why sport “teamwork” metaphors should not be used for business. Business teams need to endure for the long term, and attract and hold on to talented employees.

Teamwork is the outcome of opportunity and direction driven from the leader. Businesses are constantly bemoaning the money spent on training talent only to see them walk out the door shortly after. Younger generations need to be engaged and given opportunities if they are to remain.

Now let’s focus on opportunity. Sport is, and always will be, a leader in creating opportunities. There are so many examples of sport transcending language, class and culture.

In fact, nothing brings us together like sport. Fijian Rugby coach Ben Ryan is a great example of a leader who has transformed a good team into an extraordinary one, culminating in a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics.

In 2014, Ryan was facing a talent drain, as countries around the world were quickly buying up players for their own leagues. Knowing that many of the players wanted to stay on their home turf and be with their families, Ryan became instrumental in providing the opportunity for these players to remain in Fiji.

Personally, he sourced sufficient funding for such simple things, from supplying petrol for the team bus to serving water at team practices, in addition to paying his players.

This allowed the players to be where they wanted to be; at home with their families. Ryan was also handed another lesson about building strong teams, by understanding and incorporating the values of the people he led.

Fijians highly value the strength of the family unit, the village and the spirit of the land upon which they live. Ryan used these values to improve the team’s strength and bonding. A great lesson for all business leaders is to recognise that providing opportunities will lead to awareness of other needs within their leadership.


Engagement through enjoyable experiences

sports and leadership

Businesses know they must develop relationships with their market through engagement for long-term success. Let’s look back at the GSW, whose technological innovations have driven fanaticism and their economic value through the roof.

Lacob has allowed his team to embrace change and innovation to become a recognised leader in growing economic value. GSW are leaders when it comes to engaging with audiences in new ways, creating experiences that the market desires.

They know that 99% percent of their fans won’t ever get to be inside the building on game day, so they have worked hard to develop new products to allow the viewer to feel present, keeping them engaged for the long haul.

Their technology includes Virtual Reality (VR) viewing of the game and hue light connection at home. For those unfamiliar with hue lights, they are essentially smart lights you can buy from Philips that can alternate with different lighting colours depending on the input source such as movies or music.

GSW have taken this one step further and developed an app, which can be synced to these smart lights on game day.

You can watch the game in your living room and experience the atmosphere of the game with lighting that flashes when a player scores.

If that isn’t a brilliant example of sport “delighting and amazing customers,” I am not sure what would be. GSW believe that if they can get their fans more interested and excited, then the sport will prosper, bringing rewards to the whole industry.

When Taylor talks about a business’s ability to attract and retain staff, truly, it’s all about engagement. How we perceive our experiences in the workplace plays a big part of being engaged. Employees want to be valued fairly, and want the same personal development opportunities as every other employee in the organisation.

Great sporting leaders, such as John Wooden and Pat Summitt have long known the value of giving equal and positive praise to all team members, no matter their ability. GSW have taken this even further with their advertising. Each team player gets equal promotion, even though GSW have superstars such as Stef Curry and Kevin Durant.

This starts from their values, believing that their success stems from the team as one unit, and not from an individual. For the record, Stef Curry and Kevin Durrant have each just signed on for another five-year term. A great lesson from sport on how business leaders can work to develop, and keep the talent they have.

Tennis Australia provides a more individual example of engagement, with the player experience being top of mind when it comes to the Australian Open. Players are given a cash advance to pay for travel to attend, but they can experience their own café and lounge spaces with daily activities scheduled within these areas for entertainment.

They have implemented the world’s first ‘Heat Advice Indicator’ to keep players informed and prepared for playing matches in the heat of the Australian sun. At the grassroots level they have engaged participants with variations of their traditional game.

For children; there is a Tennis Hot-Shots program; for adults, Cardio-Tennis and, for the enjoyment of both the viewing public and players, the implementation of the Fast4 game.


After all sport is a business!

The similarities between sport and business are often intertwined. If you know where to look, there are so many other valuable lessons to use in your business organisation. After all, sporting teams that don’t engage their athlete, or continually provide opportunities to improve their performance are never going to succeed.

But a team that achieves this a core function will endure, like any company would.


For over 30 years, Joanne Love’s coaching methods have influenced Australia’s leading athletes, coaches and teams. Joanne represented Australia in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics as a swim coach. She has also coached a number of Olympic medallists and world-record holders. Joanne is a trained psychologist and Leadership Coach. Her unique outlook draws upon years of educational knowledge, her ability to create successful outcomes, and her psychological training, which is now helping parents, coaches and athletes to maximise their performances. To connect with her, email


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Leadership coach and trained psychologist Joanne can teach you how to lead people to achieve greater success. If you would like to find out more about her, check out her website.

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