10 lessons we can learn from sport - featured image

The past 12 months has been a fascinating year for sport. Amongst it, the All Blacks winning the Rugby World Cup, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon, England struggling in the Football World Cup and now the amazing performance of Team GB in the Olympics.

In my work as a coach and leadership specialist, I have become more and more fascinated by what we can learn from sport in businesses, organisations and as leaders.

Understanding psychology is an important part of what I bring to Leaders and Organisations. I do however feel that the world of sport is often ahead in the way it looks at individual and collective psychology to achieve results.

Here are 10 strategies we can learn and apply from the sporting world.

1. We must learn from our mistakes

I spoke to a client this week who believed he could not have done any better at a sales pitch he lost. I asked for three things he would do differently next time and he was quick to offer them. You see we can always improve through reflection, feedback and learning from our mistakes.

Pundit Lee Dixon was in the studio for the football World Cup and he made one interesting comment. He said “we learn almost nothing from our victories and everything from our losses”.

Do you see your challenges as being in your way or on your way?

2. Dedication and resilience is critical

Here is a famous quote from ‘buzz beater’ Michael Jordan “I’ve missed more than 9000 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”.

When the going gets tough we all need to learn and apply resilience techniques.

3. Know and focus on your Key Result Areas (KRAs)

Derby sacked their manager Paul Clement in February when the team were fifth. This raised a few eyebrows, but the explanation made sense to me. He had been given five key result areas as part of his role. These included building on the Derby way and style of football; adding depth and strength to the playing squad and improving player and team performance. He did not make enough progress on these measures and so went.

I worked with a leader recently who said he was not sure what his role was anymore. We started with his KRAs to bring clarity.

4. Celebrate and reward the wins

5000-1 to win the Premiership. That was the odds on Leicester City to win the Premiership. Leicester’s bright start to the season had one cloud for manager Ranieri, the lack of a clean sheet. He promised the players he’d treat them all to pizza if they managed one, and stuck to his word after a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace.

The pizza trip grabbed national headlines and gave the sense of a squad whose togetherness was going to make them hard to shift.

I constantly encourage business owners to celebrate the good that happens and you should too.

5. Don’t leave it too long before asking for help

Former Premiership footballer Clarke Carlisle attempted suicide in 2015. He has since learned strategies to cope with his negative thinking. He talks about mind health being on a spectrum, which I totally relate to. We are not mentally healthy or mentally unhealthy, we all exist on a spectrum. I am passionate about helping people keep on top of their “Destructive Self”. A great leader I know from networking took his life this year.

We all need to find ways to cope.

6. Marginal Gains

David Brailsford took over GB’s cycling team in 2010. No GB cyclist had won the Tour de France at that point. He believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to a remarkable improvement.

In 2012, Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games and dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available.

Where can you make a number of small improvements in what you do?

7. Culture is everything

I recently read a book called Legacy, which is about the All Blacks (Thank you hugely Louise Carling from Macildowie for the recommendation).

The All Blacks focus on their driving Purpose, their values and the behaviours that are expected of an All Black. For the past 10 years they have focused on their culture.

The driving “Why” they do what the do is to leave a “Legacy.” To leave the All Black shirt in a better place than it was when they got it.

I think defining your culture and identity is critical, whatever size business you are.

8. Keep it simple

Famed for his tactical nous and influential selection of substitutions, Alex Ferguson explained that he prefers to keep his tactics simple.
“I tend to concentrate on one or two players of my opponents – the ones that are the most influential”
Apple have a whole philosophy built around this (check out the book Insanely Simple)

Where are you overcomplicating what you do?

9. Train to win

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines in the gym and out there on the road, well before I dance under the lights”. The words of the late great Muhammad Ali.

In business, training is often seen as a soft option and limited to the occasional away day. Effective training and coaching is regular and for best results should be central to the culture.

When did you last invest in yourself and your people?

10. Mindset is more important than skill set

Dr Steven Peters worked with the Team GB cyclists to get on top of their negative thinking. Andy Murray gave himself the most important self-talk of his life to win the American Open as his first major tournament when 0-2 down.

The World of Sport knows that mindset will give you the advantage. They delve deeper and deeper into cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

Your Psychology can support you or hijack you. See my recent article on cognitive biases as one example of this.


I will be developing a more elaborate resource in this area for my clients in September. If you would like a copy, please let me know.

If you feel you need help and support in developing your own leadership role or your organisation, it would be great to talk.

Feel free to give me a call on 0115 903 3133 or email at lead@theleadershiptrainingworkshop.com and we can discuss how to help you in any way.