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How to succeed in business by applying sports behaviours

A leading psychologist explains how employing the same behaviours of success in sport can help you succeed at business too.

We thrive in and seek out business and sport because of an inherent competitiveness, which is wired in to our brains. It is how we are made up and how we evolved. The basis for our involvement and passion—both positive and negative—in sport as well as business, is innate. We share many basic characteristics with all other vertebrates. Most of our brain is not for cognitive function, but for survival.

This is the realm of ethnologists who study species-specific behaviours. Indeed, noted ethnologist Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize looking at behaviours such as aggression, competitiveness, territoriality and other primitive instinctual behaviours that we share with many species. We are designed for a primitive environment (the jungle) but find ourselves living in cities. We are designed to deal with dangers—real dangers—in which the fight or flight syndrome has value.

Fight or flight has little value now in regards to most of the ‘dangers’ that we face in our present environment such as giving speeches, finishing reports, asking for dates, serving out a set, clinching a business deal, for example. These tasks do not benefit from the flowing of adrenaline and the raising of anxiety that we experience. Despite our modern world, we are being run by a primitive apparatus. Hans Selye, the father of stress research, defines stress as: “The disease of change”. Change is viewed as dangerous. The changes occurring in our present environment are accelerating and this change is what I believe serves as the seat of stress and subsequent depression that is plaguing our present world.

We were designed to survive in the jungle but, quite late in our history (the last few thousand years), we found ourselves living in cities. In order to survive in cities, it was important to quell the inbuilt tendencies wired into our primitive brains. Sets of rules such as The 10 Commandments were given to us to allow us to function and survive in societies. Without them, and without laws and police, aggression and competitiveness would cause pandemonium.

However, there seems to be a need to be able to express either actively, or vicariously, what is prohibited by the laws of our society. The Romans developed the circus to provide for its citizenry an outlet for experiencing (visually) mortal combat, rape and other behaviours not tolerated within their society. Indeed, if you want to write a movie or book that will be successful to the masses, it’s important to transgress things we cannot do based on The 10 Commandments.

Sport grew up as a means of expressing aggression. As other animals have developed methods of ‘ritualised aggression,’ so have we, and sport fills this niche. Avery Brundage, long-term head of the International Olympic Committee, claimed that the Olympics served this role and perhaps as a means to reduce wars. Tennis players walking out into the centre court at Wimbledon seemingly mirror the feeling that others felt walking into the Coliseum with the crowd aroused for the battle ahead. Death on the tennis court is symbolic but the fear and anxiety experienced shares its roots with actual mortal combat.

For most, business is also akin to sport. If you have enough to eat, and you have a place to live, then anything else is bonus and not based on real physiological need. We seek bigger houses, loftier titles, more possessions etc, because of instinctual drives more so than actual need. In a place like Australia, where people come for a better life, survival is neither the issue nor really the motivation. We are subliminally motivated by nesting instincts, dominance, and competitiveness, which transcends our consciousness.

When I talk to business people, particularly entrepreneurs and those at the top, I try to get them to look at business as a game, as a sport. I often pair sporting people and business people together. Early on in Scott Draper’s career, I put him together with John Reynolds who was then CEO of a major newspaper chain as well as on the board of Heinz in Ireland. I did so both to make Scott more ‘businesslike’ and to get John to view his business more like a sport.

I regularly put business people and sporting people together because the fundamentals are the same for success and the difficulties share a commonality. For example, the most anxiety-provoking time in a sporting contest is when you’re ahead. Players talk about the most stress they experience when they are trying to serve out a match. It’s when they have something to lose. In business, for example, most feel anxiety at the time of attempting to clinch the deal; it’s when they have the most to lose.

For a national corporate recovery firm, I created a six-month program for 10 selected individuals who were being taught how to compete at the elite level in business and to get the best out of themselves.  I ran this program with a former Olympic swimmer. Over the six months, we brought in a number of Olympic swimmers, a Davis Cupper (Scott), a couple of rugby internationals including Rugby Union’s Topo Rodriguez, legendary Hockeyroo Nikki Hudson and John Reynolds, to talk about problem-solving, goal-setting, controlling arousal level and a range of other topics that the elite in both domains (sport and business) employ.

What am I advising my business clients now during this time of trouble, the global financial crisis? I advise them as I would anybody in either sport or business after adversity. I am telling them: “Control what you can control. Focus on not what has happened, but what you can now do.” When things go badly, people often get panicked and things get complicated. I try to get people to slow down, to look objectively at the situation and then to develop or re-initiate a simple plan. I try to get people to focus on the process and not the outcome.  In business, this is certainly a time to model strength in leadership. When a team is stressed and fearful, leadership will greatly determine outcome. It’s a time to be positive. It’s a time to maximise the resources available. It’s a time too, to remind them that it is a game.

This advice is not new. For years I have worked with senior executives suffering greatly from the ups and downs of share prices, the fear potential staff retrenchments and the possibility of losing their own jobs. These execs will remain nameless, but sometimes the stress completely takes the enjoyment out of going to work. To excel in sport, and to excel in business, requires passion. Stress and fear evaporate passion. If you maintain balance and perspective, not only can you foster passion but you will also increase your chance of winning.

—Psychologist Michael Fox speaks to and consults to business people and sports people the world over.


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Michael Fox

Michael Fox

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