Learning from sports (or not)

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I love sports. I loved playing them (basketball was my game) and I love being a fan. I’ve followed the Clemson Tigers for years so this year, when they played for the National Championship, I was about as whacko as a fan can get.

But as much as I love sports, I cringe when I read someone suggest that sports are a great model for business. Nope. Or at least, not everything about sports is worth learning. For one thing, there are some very important differences between the way sports teams work and the way business teams work.

How sports are not like business

The biggest difference between sports and business is that sports teams practice way more than they play. In business every day is game day.

Another important difference is that sports is played with formal rules and defined times. There are seasons and at the end of a season, there is only one champion. In college football this year, that champion is Alabama.

Business is different because you can be very successful in a niche business. There’s simply no equivalent in sports for the specialty niche business.

Consider Neese’s Country Sausage. Almost a hundred years ago, J. T. Neese was making sausage in Guilford County, North Carolina, delivering to a territory he could reach in the Conestoga wagon he used for delivery. Today the territory is a little larger. It’s defined by the distance a delivery truck can travel from the factory, make deliveries to stores, and return the same day. It’s a geographic niche.

Atkins and Pearce has been in business since 1817 in some form of textiles. Today they specialize in “braided technical textiles.” That includes candlewick and coated insulation sleeving. It’s a product niche.

In business, you don’t have to be the champion to be successful. You can be a profitable, winning business, by specializing in a niche.

Things you can learn from sports

Despite the differences, you can learn some important lessons from playing or observing sports. Here’s my take on the most important.

Different sports offer different challenges

Basketball is a very different game from football and both are different from baseball. Each sport offers different challenges. Business is similar. In their excellent Harvard Business Review article, “Are Leaders Portable?” Boris Groysberg, Andrew N. McLean, and Nitin Nohria explain why a leader who is wildly successful in one place may fail in another.

Team chemistry matters

You don’t get a great team by finding a bunch of great players, putting them together, and waiting for the magic to happen. Skills and personalities have to mesh before those talented individuals turn into a great team. Culture is king and, as Rod Santomassimo says in his book, Commercial Real Estate Teams Built to Dominate, “Great teams don’t happen by accident.”

The will to do the little things

Great sports teams and great business teams do the little, boring, and sometimes difficult things that create success. They do small but important things over and over. Here’s my opportunity to use one of my favorite quotes from legendary Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“It’s not the will to win that matters. Everybody has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”

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