Since taking up cycling only 3 years ago, I’ve had an exponential journey. I bought a bicycle in 2015 after many running injury frustrations, joined a recreational cycling group and started racing. I found myself rapidly rising through the ranks from club racing to state, national and then international levels, and then this year I was selected to represent Australia in the UCI Road World Championships.
I recently presented this cycling story at a client lunch as a part of the 460degrees Conversation Series. Afterwards, there were a lot of questions about the link between my sporting career and my role as a consultant.
“What is the philosophy behind 460degrees’ athlete pathway program?”, “How does the workplace support me to perform in both areas of my life?” and “Just what is the connection between sport and corporate success?”
Image: Here I am chatting with Agile Champion, Simon Bristow about my cycling journey at the Conversation Series event.
Beyond physiological ability, there are some innate mental attributes that are key to being successful in sports. These strengths can hold the same value in a business environment. Competitive sport teaches skills and provides experiences that consolidate extremely marketable business traits.
Tennis star and successful entrepreneur, Venus Williams, captures the link succinctly;
“Sport is so much like business. It’s all about strategy. And it’s all about learning from losing. It’s all about setting goals.”
This is why 460degrees began its athlete pathway program to support ex-sportspeople to build a professional career – to recognise that people who succeed in the competitive sport have innate qualities that are transferable to the success in the corporate world.
So what attributes demonstrate the synergies between athletes and successful business people? I’ve written down a few from my experience in the elite cycling world.
Resilience and persistence –
Athletes are not afraid to work hard for a result and know that success doesn’t come overnight!
Competitive sport sees a lot of tough times in return for small moments of reward and satisfaction. To succeed, whether it’s innate or learned, an athlete needs to be able to really bunker down and drive themselves day after day, pushing past failures. Having the mental strength and work ethic to keep driving through hard times is invaluable in a corporate environment.
In many sports, there are risks of injury and almost definitely the risk of failure.
Cycling is no different. I’ve been caught up in more crashes than I’d like to admit and it’s difficult not to fear for your life in some cycling races. However, I’ve learnt that to succeed, all fear needs to be put aside. A leap of faith needs to be taken, whether that’s taking a corner faster than seems safe to hold a wheel, or attacking your rivals when you feel like your hurting more than them to take a chance at winning a race.
Having this type of courage in the business environment means you can go out and find opportunities, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
Critical thinking –
Strategising is second nature.
Winning bike races requires developing a strategy, which the whole team has agreed to and participates in together. These races are ever-changing environments, and plans need to adapt to the situation on the road. Naturally, cyclists need to be able to problem solve and think tactically at any given moment.
This type of big-picture thinking is useful for businesses who want a clear strategic direction without getting caught up in procedural distractions.
Time management –
Juggling training with other life commitments is a constant challenge. Committing 15 – 20hrs on the bike each week means that time becomes a high-value item. This has taught me to be very strategic with how I spend each moment.
Planning & goal setting –
We make visions a reality.
All athletes have dreams about what they might be able to achieve. To make those dreams a reality, it’s important to set goals and plan for them.
I have plans at all different scales, from high-level plans, like racing at the next Olympics, to mid-term target race preparation, to detailed day-to-day training plans. Each plan has a specific goal and feeds into the larger vision.
Planning around race days can also be logistically complex and preparing for them can make corporate operations seem simple.
Ambition to succeed –
Pursuit of high-level success goes hand-in-hand with being an elite athlete.
This same drive is present in all areas of my life. I always want everything I do to be at the highest possible standard that I’m capable of, which can pay huge dividends in the corporate world.
Accepting change and being attuned to present opportunities.
Cycling has a lot of ups and downs and your situation can change in the blink of an eye. This teaches you to be very accepting of change no matter how much energy you’ve invested in a certain vision. You learn to take a deep breath and think “OK, here I am. How am I going to make the best of this situation?”
Even when things haven’t gone bad, you become more attuned to the present moment and what opportunities are available. I think this is an invaluable skill to apply in all areas of life to get the best out of it.
Understanding that every team member is important.
Although cycling often appears to be an individual sport, it’s actually one of the most highly functioning team environments I’ve ever been part of.
A team goal is developed, generally with the most capable rider (for that specific event) chosen to deliver the desired result. All riders will have a specific role to set up/control the race in pursuit of that goal. For this to succeed, there is a need for high levels of trust, the sacrifice of individual goals, transparency about weaknesses and limitations, and constant communication throughout the race. When this all works, races can be magical. When it doesn’t, success is near impossible.
All elements are relevant in the corporate world and can have huge benefits when putting into practice. I’ve learnt that the best teams are those that leverage the complementary strengths of their members.
Knowing your worth and selling it.
The professional sporting world can be pretty unfair to those who don’t hold their own. Without a lot of money in women’s’ cycling, it’s rare for an athlete to have a personal agent. This means we need to be able to negotiate our own contracts and be proactive in finding opportunities. Seeing your own value and being able to sell it can put you ahead of competitors.
There are a number of organisations that are creating pathways for successful athletes to also become champions in the workplace, but this I believe that this a connection that could be more widely accepted in businesses.
In particular, there are many current and retired athletes with these traits that are not being utilised to their full potential in the corporate world (yet)!