Athletes and business people may not seem like they have much in common, at first glance. One group is active, virtually every minute of the day. The other group is too often sedentary, sitting at a computer or talking on the phone. The athletes are often outside, running around, or maybe in the gym, trying out the latest dance class. The executives are often looking wistfully outside, wishing they weren't in a boardroom and maybe trying to squeeze in a workout in a long lunch hour or after work.
But take a longer look, and you start to sense that there's a reason, perhaps, that so many sports stars become not just spokespeople for brands, but business owners. Sports and business have a lot in common. There's the lingo, for starters. Employers often call employees “teammates," who are asked to set “goals." There are even business coaches, and executives often use sports terms to describe, well, everything. Or have you never been told you've knocked something out of the park, or that a can't-miss business opportunity is a slam dunk?
This can all be useful to remember if you're ever looking for an excuse to join your company's softball team or debating whether to start an exercise program. Athletics can really help improve your game in the corporate world. Here, several business leaders share their thoughts on how athletics has helped them be more productive and successful at work.
1. Sports teach persistence.
Michael Volk is a senior enterprise account executive at Sprinklr, a social media management software. But before that, he was a professional soccer player. His soccer career didn't last too long—about five months—due to two hernia surgeries, stemming from injuries while playing. But Volk has played soccer since he was four years old—and he still plays regularly—and he says that the sport has taught him a lot about persistence.
For instance, when he was a freshman on the soccer team at the University of Virginia, he says that the players came from all over the world.
“When you bring everyone together to form one team, there are going to be people who ride the bench who have never ridden the bench their entire lives," Volk says. And that happened to him during his freshman year. “I didn't play one game," he says.
But Volk didn't let it get to him. He used his desire to get off the bench to fuel him to train harder—and his coaches noticed. During the next year, he won his position as starter and stayed there the rest of his college career.
And that persistence has served Volk well in the business world. If he gets a no, he doesn't take it personally. He just keeps working, knowing eventually he'll get a yes.
2. Sports teach teamwork.
Zulema Quintans, vice president, marketing at American Express, studied dance in school and was a professional dancer. Like Volk, her dance career was short. She retired from dancing at age 25.
“Dance is such a short-lived career," Quintans says. “You're always kind of preparing for Plan B, because there's always a chance of injury. The average retirement age for a dancer is 27."
So as Quintans studied dance at prestigious institutions such as The Julliard School in New York City and the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, she was also keeping an eye toward the future. For instance, she secured her master's degree at Harvard Business School in public policy administration. During that time, she was also dancing in Boston.
“You spend all of your time training, practicing and performing in groups, and sometimes you take on different roles in those groups," Quintans says. “Sometimes you're the supporting role in the ensemble, and sometimes you're more of a soloist or a featured role. But one of the things ingrained in you, in the dance world, is that every part is equally important, no matter what your stature is in the group. That links in nicely with collaboration in business."
Volk agrees, having played on a soccer team. “You have to execute moves with your teammates flawlessly while running. There's a lot of organization and collective strategy in soccer," he says.
3. Sports teach strategy.
Quintans observes that corporate strategy has a lot to do with problem solving—and that dance, and in particular ballet, also has a lot to do with problem solving.
“You spend a lot of time learning new repertoires and count phrases," Quintans.
Count phrases refer to the number of beats or pulses that go by in a phrase of music. Dancing isn't only a workout for the body. It's a workout for the brain.
In general, the brain can get a lot of exercise in a sporting activity. “The position I played left zero room for error," Volk says. “If I made one mistake, one bad mistake, the ball could be with the other team at my goalie."
Still, there's some adjusting that goes in the transition from being strategic on a soccer field to being strategic in the boardroom. “You have to be strategic with every call and internal meetings, but you don't want to make split-second decisions in business that you'll regret later," Volk says.
Quintans has also found that she can't quite take everything she picked up as a dancer and use it in the workplace. “In ballet, there's a perfect ideal in every position. You're striving for perfectionism. But in business, that can work against you. You need to collect enough information to make a decision and stick with it. You're also often operating in environments with imperfect information."
If you don't figure that out quickly, you can find yourself paralyzed with indecision. Quintans says she had to unlearn some of her perfectionism at the beginning of her career.
4. Sports teach discipline.
No surprise here—sports and athletics can shape an entrepreneur or executive's mindset.
Jacquii Warnock, vice president of international implementations at American Express, has pretty much done it all. She was—and still is—a competitive snowboarder, a body builder, and she runs marathons. Shockingly, she has learned a lot about completing individual goals and hard work over the years, and as you can imagine, she is able to use that in the business world.
I encourage everybody to have goals you're chasing outside of work. Because when work goes bad, and it does sometimes—you let yourself down or make a mistake—it helps to keep you balanced and makes you more resilient.
Jacquii Warnock, vice president of international implementations, American Express
Warnock started off as a competitive snowboarder, but once she realized she wouldn't be going to the Olympics, she started thinking she should be looking for that mythical Plan B that Quintans mentioned. Warnock had been working a lot of odd jobs to pay the bills between snowboarding, but one day she thought better of the career path she was on. “I'm smarter than this," she told herself.
Warnock, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, got her MBA in strategic management at Charles Sturt University, and while it would be easy to say she never looked back, she never gave up being an athlete. She recently ran a half marathon in New York City. She still snowboards. And several years ago, she became a competitive bodybuilder.
“In sports, you often have to get up when you don't want to, and you have to go out and do this thing—a thing that you love, but maybe in that moment and on that day, you don't want to. But you have to. Body building is a great example for me. When you stand up on the stage, it's very clear who put in the work. If you go to a birthday party, you aren't going to be able to have any cake. If it's Easter, and there's chocolate everywhere, you aren't going to be able to have any candy. You have to make a lot of difficult choices consistently and not get distracted from the main goal," Warnock says.
“And at work," she continues, “it's very easy to be distracted by the shiny new thing that's popped into your inbox, or that great opportunity that came out of left field."
5. Sports make you a better business person, period.
If you're suddenly thinking, “Hey, wait a minute, I hate sports, and now you're telling me I need to take up one," don't despair. You can improve your business skills without joining a soccer league, joining a dance troupe or careening down a snowy hill on a plastic sled. While everybody can benefit from taking a nature walk or shooting some hoops and getting a little exercise, the main thing is finding something outside of the office to enjoy, Warnock suggests.
“I don't think it matters that you take on a sport. But I think it's healthy to learn a new language, learn how to crochet or paint. Having a pursuit that's encouraging you to grow and build yourself, outside of the office, is simply good for your mental health and self-growth," she says.
Volk and Quintans agree.
Volk still plays soccer twice a week, indoor and outdoor. “It's super healthy, and it's good to blow off steam every once in awhile," he says.
Quintans does a lot of yoga and is even certified as a yoga instructor, though she isn't currently teaching—and she often attends dance recitals.
“For me, it's sports, but I encourage everybody to have goals you're chasing outside of work," Warnock says. “Because when work goes bad, and it does sometimes—you let yourself down or make a mistake—it helps to keep you balanced and makes you more resilient."
Which is something to keep in mind the next time you feel like you can't or shouldn't do anything but live and breathe work. Having a life outside of the office can actually make you better at your job.
Photo: Getty Images