Similarities in Sport and Business – What can we Learn?


In sport as in business, success means staying fully focused on your goal and doing everything possible to achieve it. And as different as these two fields may seem, there are a surprising number of similarities, where each could teach the other a huge amount. That’s the opinion of Matt Taylor and Patrick Burge, who have extensive experience in both fields, giving them a unique perspective on how sport and business could exchange their learning to improve performance.
They share their views, and some inspiring lessons for life as well…



Bring in expertise

To help them reach peak performance, elite sportsmen and women are surrounded by teams of coaches, nutritionists,physiotherapists, sports psychologists etc. Yet in business, the CEO can be somewhat isolated, and it’s relatively rare to seek mentoring or guidance from outside. But companies would do well to bring in expertise – to get advice, give different perspectives and challenge their ideas – create a think-tank situation. People are still siloed in what they do in business, whereas in sport you’re always looking outside for solutions, because you’re forever seeking competitive advantage. Bring in Expertise Coach

Patrick cites the example of rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward. Already a successful businessman, he took England to world cup victory in 2003 and revolutionised the game. His attention to detail was renowned and he would try anything to get results, even bringing in a specialist on peripheral vision. ‘He built his back-room team – his trademark quality – by bringing in expert after expert. If Clive didn’t have the answer about angles of attack, then he knew a man who did.’ (1)



‘I’d just like to think the teams I’ve worked with would say, “he was somebody who absolutely threw everything at each challenge and gave his all.” If any of us thought something would have made a difference to winning a deal, a rugby game, or a Gold medal, we got it done. That’s what I’d like to be remembered for. It’s as simple as that really.’

Sir Clive Woodward OBE




Analyse & assess

Matt believes that more regular assessment is needed in sport, rather than just on the weekend results. ‘At work you’re constantly assessing and analysing, it’s critical because of the financial consequences. But in sport, at times we get it wrong; it’s easy to go with the flow, we don’t always analyse what we’ve done, and players could learn from more frequent assessment – you could apply the business approach to sport.’

grad scheme applications

Patrick agrees that to enable people to be the best they can be, they need to work out exactly where to focus their efforts. He refers to ‘Two Lengths of the Pool’, which crystallises what an Olympic swimmer needed to do to win a medal: by ignoring the things he could not control like competitors’ times, type of pool or quality of his hotel room, and instead focussing solely on one essential job: ‘swim two lengths of the pool as fast as I can’. The same principles can be applied to sports and business. Try to identify your ‘two lengths of the pool’ to clarify what you really need to do, which will help you develop razor sharp focus and improve your performance.


Learn from setbacks

In business as in sport, you have to be prepared to take some hits along the way. Matt says his sporting career prepared him for that, because you wouldn’t win every day.

But as long as you’re moving along the right track, that’s what counts. He draws an analogy with sport, where you only need to be ahead by one goal to win a match, so conceding a goal is not the end of the world; at the end of the season, you only need to be ahead by one point to win the league – you don’t have to win all the time to succeed.

Be ready to ‘take the shot on’ and be prepared to fail at times – but view setbacks as learning opportunities. The trick is not to give up, but to work out how to tackle the problem, to avoid a similar scenario next time. He says in business as in sport, it’s important not to overreact to the lows or the highs, but to find the middle ground.


‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

Michael Jordan




Personal Characteristics

Matt says the qualities that help you succeed in sport are the same as those you would want in business. It may be different for individual sports, but when we’re taking on team players, we look for the same key credentials. Whilst ability is obviously important, so are coachability and a positive mindset. The way to up your game is to have an open mind and be willing to seek and accept guidance. You need drive, determination, a hunger to improve, succeed. And know you’re not always right – a willingness to accept responsibility, rather than being too ready to blame others, the referee or the pitch.
You need to be a good team player – understand your role and how you will contribute to the team success, be encouraging and supportive of other team members in tough times as well as good.
Team player 

See stress as a positive force

Stress affects everyone at times e.g. exams, job interviews, public speaking and unfamiliar situations – all can make us feel apprehensive, or anxious. It’s the same as pre-performance nerves in sport, music or acting. But it’s important to understand that these are good emotions – it’s just your body getting you ready to do whatever you have to do. Exposure to perceived threats triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response, releasing a flood of stress hormones, which enable our mind and body to work better, faster, more efficiently so we can deal with the challenge ahead.
Sports psychologist Tom Bates trains athletes to reframe how they think about stress – as a sign that their body is ready to perform when their absolute best is required. In this way, you can harness stress to drive success instead of hindering performance. He explains that this positive mindset could help us all to perform at our peak.
So recognise those nervous feelings as a good sign. As Patrick says: ‘Apprehension, anxiety, stress – they’re just words. It’s understanding your body that really counts.’

Find out more in our Stress Survival Guide


‘The Chimp Paradox’ – Prof Steve Peters
Mind management programme to help you understand how your mind works and  develop skills to remove anxiety, have confidence and choose your emotions.



About Matt Taylor & Patrick Burge

Matt is an ex hockey international, and Founder of successful coaching business MT13, who worked with some of the Olympic ladies’ hockey team. He is also Director of Hockey at the University of Nottingham.
Patrick is a business advisor & mentor, working across several industries including sports biomechanics, and with Matt at MT13. Patrick is also Co-Founder of Smorgasbord Startup Services, who offer services, funding and mentoring to growth companies in the UK.


Watch our videos of Matt & Patrick on this topic:

Grad Bites: Sport – Lessons for Life & Business Part I & Part II



(1) ‘Disenchanted and now disengaged’ – Eddie Butler (The Guardian, Sept 2004)