Photo: Flckr Creative Commons: mriggen
I love playing sports (although as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more of a watcher than a doer). In particular, I love the mental side of sports. I’m convinced that sports are a great training ground for many different disciplines. I remember when I was interviewing for Spark, excellence at some sport was an important factor in the hiring process. Of course, it’s a good measure of competitiveness, but I think it’s even deeper than that.This got me thinking about the emotional and mental characteristics that are important for entrepreneurs, and the sports that best hone these characteristics. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but there were three sports that really hone a particular strength that I see in great entrepreneurs.
American Football: One of the critical lessons that football players learn early on is that it is critical to “deliver the hit”. The idea is that if you are about to collide against someone, the worst thing you can do is flinch. Even if you are a smaller player, if you are the one “delivering the hit” you will inflict more damage (and thus, absorb less damage) in the impact.
We often hear of entrepreneurs that are “forces of nature” or will “run through walls” to get things done. These folks are tireless, bold, and un-intimidated by the big challenges or competitors in front of them. This is an incredibly important characteristic. I think it’s strongly reinforced by football, even though most entrepreneurs I know probably aren’t quite the physical specimen best suited for that game.
Golf: What I think is different between many sports and being an entrepreneur is the speed of decision making. In a fast paced sport, decisions happen so quickly that much of it happens by instinct. Needing to make a free throw to win a game is very different from making a shot in motion largely because of the time you are suddenly allowed to think about the shot and consider the risks.
Golf is one of those rare sports where every shot is intentional, and none are reactive. Furthermore, there is a long time between shots to think about what you are doing, get mad at yourself, doubt yourself, and resolve to stick to your strategy. Finally, golf is one of those games where one bad hole can completely derail an otherwise great round. As an entrepreneur, your decisions are much more calculated and intentional than reactionary. You have lots of time from day to day to question yourself and experience emotional highs and lows. And a few critical mistakes can compound on themselves to completely derail your business. Having the cool-headedness and mental discipline of great golfers is a real asset.
Wrestling: The problem with golf as a mental training ground is that it is a terrible sport to learn how to be a “closer”. The reason is that tournament golf is such that there is a large field and only one winner. Even the best golfers in the world have winning percentages of less than 20%, and most top 50 golfers probably find themselves in position to win only a handful of times each year. But for an entrepreneur, being able to “close” is paramount. It’s a huge skill – it’s relevant in selling to customers, hiring great talent, fundraising, and closing important deals and partnerships.
What you want is a sport where the individual faces the need to “close” very frequently, and encounter the opportunity to “win” often enough to make the situation second nature. As I thought this through, the best sport I could come up with is probably wrestling (or some other combat sport like mixed martial arts). Each match is a 1:1 battle with a winner and a loser. The guy against you is trying like crazy to beat you, and have both been training like crazy to be prepared for the challenge. Pure aggression along is not enough to win, but you have to be level headed and strategic as well.
Another nice element of wrestling is the intense preparation that culminates in a moment of peak performance. Wrestlers train like crazy, cut weight quickly, in order to be as prepared as possible for a single match. Although startups aren’t quite the same, I think there is a strong benefit to being mentally prepared for big sprints and major moments of crisis or opportunity. An entrepreneur’s life isn’t one with a steady cadence – there are many huge peaks and valleys, and not everyone is prepared for that.
Of course, many other sports develop great mental disciplines that are beneficial in many life contexts. I don’t mean to gloss over important things like teamwork, leadership, etc. But wanted to point out some particular traits that are themselves particularly well developed by these three sports.
Disclaimer: I play golf, but not Football. I love watching the UFC and my college roommate was a wrestler, but I’ve never wrestled myself.
Thanks to Sean Lindsay, Jason Jacobs, Jennifer Lum, Dan Primack, and others on Twitter who contributed their ideas to this post!
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