Lessons From Sport


Sport and business may not seem like natural bedfellows, but just as the former has grown into a fully fledged corporate entity with time, so too has the sporting mindset seeped its way into boardrooms across the western world. The fact that people talk about ‘high performance’ or ‘marginal gains’ is testament to the increased merging of the two.

And it’s not surprising. After all, a lot of the building blocks that will take you far in one are equally applicable to the other. Determination, ambition, work ethic, innovation, the ability to bounce back…list them out like that and there’s no saying which of the two realms you’re referring to. As such, this article will feature some cherry-picked sporting stars and occasions and point to the lessons we in the business world can learn from them.

Mohammad Ali

Where else could we start but with the greatest? In the (extremely unlikely) event that any readers have not heard of Mohammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), he was the first boxer to win the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Century while the BBC named him Sports Personality of the Century. He is arguably the greatest boxer to ever live and certainly the most notorious. As such, we’ll take not one but two lessons from him.

Lesson #1: Sometimes you have to take the hits

In 1974, Ali came up against the unbeaten George Foreman –– to this day the hardest-hitting puncher the sport has ever produced. In what was marketed as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’, the two fought in the sweltering heat of the Democratic Republic of Congo, lending weight to the autocratic regime of Joseph-Désiré Mobuto in what can be considered an early example of the sportwashing culture that permeates today’s society. Ali was 32. His body could no longer back up his once-defining mantra: float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. People worried for his safety. Foreman could hurt you beyond just defeat.

In a feat of brilliance, Ali did the one thing everyone hoped he wouldn’t: he let Foreman hit him. He hung on the ropes, pulling what we now call the ‘rope-a-dope’, and let the biggest hitter in boxing land blow after blow on his body, over and over again. All Ali guarded was his face while taking endless punishment to the torso. Hit after agonising hit. Pain like you couldn’t imagine. But Ali took it all. Until, eventually, the tactic worked, Foreman tired. In the eighth round, Ali sprung from the ropes and with a left and right to a visibly knackered Foreman’s face shocked the world to regain the Heavyweight title.

There are times in business and in life where things will be hard. They will be painful. So painful that throwing in the towel feels like the easiest option. But it’s not. Sometimes all you have to do through the tough times is hold on, tolerate the pain, knowing that it’s your only chance of making it out the other side victorious. The likelihood is you won’t have planned for that pain –– Ali didn’t; it was something he decided to do in the ring on the night; his coach was as surprised as anyone. But if you’re brave enough to choose to take it, and strong enough to tolerate it, then great things can be born of suffering.

Lesson #2: Principles matter

On June 20, 1967, Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston for refusing induction in the U.S. armed forces. His accompanying quote when the government attempted to draft him to the fledgling war effort in Vietnam instantly passed into legend: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

It didn’t take long for Ali to be stripped of his titles and banned from fighting. He lost more than three years of his career protesting a war that history has come to condemn. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” he asked.

Ali was an icon for his career in the ring. But his refusal to renounce his principles, even amongst endless slander in the press and the loss of his livelihood, is an example to all. Principles matter. Character matters. It can be easy to go with the prevailing wind, but figures who have values that they’re willing to live and die by are rightly the most respected. It’s something businesses could do with remembering.


Lesson #3: It’s about mentality

Bazball is the term given to the England cricket team’s style of play under head coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum and captain Ben Stokes. It is defined by aggression and positivity. England teams under Bazball do not consider the draw. They play to win, even and especially when it means they risk losing.

A key aspect of Bazball revolves around relieving mental pressure –– rather than condemning players if they get out in a reckless way, they are praised all the same and given freedom to play as themselves. It is about instilling a mindset that as long as players are having fun and entertaining the crowd then they are doing their job. Get caught out on the boundary playing a big shot when you could have just blocked the ball? No worries, next time go even bigger.

It’s proved effective. In the 15-month span before McCullum’s appointment, England had played seventeen Tests, winning one, drawing five, and losing eleven. In the Stokes-McCullum era, they have played twenty-two Tests, winning fourteen, losing seven, and drawing one. England also score their runs significantly faster than any team in Test history.

Looking at those stats, one would think that some large overhaul of personnel must have taken place. But it has not. It is almost exactly the same players as before. The only difference is mentality. By prioritising positivity, aggression and freedom, and most of all by removing judgement and fear of failure, the self-same players are drastically outperforming old versions of themselves. Any business would do well to learn from this approach.

Pep Guardiola

Lesson #4 –– Have a vision, bring it to life

Pep Guardiola is one of the greatest football managers to ever live. Arguably the greatest. His Barcelona team of Messi and co. is widely considered the best to ever play the game. Meanwhile, his Manchester City team have won six out of the last seven Premier League titles and won the treble (Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League) in 2023. So, what can businesses learn from the Catalan?

Pep Guardiola is a control freak. That can be a negative in business, so it helps that he is also a genius. What marks him out, though, and makes him the most emulated manager of modern times, is that he has a vision of how he wants his teams to play and then does everything he can to bring that vision to life. Sometimes that means ruthlessly removing any cog –– no matter how effective has proven itself in the past –– that doesn’t meet his singular vision.

An obvious example would be the former England goalkeeper Joe Hart. When Pep Guardiola arrived at Manchester City, Hart was the keeper for his national team and had won back-to-back Premier League Golden Glove awards (the award for conceding the least goals in the league), having helped the team to two Premier League titles. That didn’t matter to Pep. He wanted a goalkeeper who was good with his feet and could be relied upon in possession. Hart was a mere shot-stopper. As such, he was ousted without ceremony or contrition. It was ruthless. But the subsequent success of City suggests it was the right call.

Guardiola plays a certain style of football that, like him, is based on control. His team dictates the flow of the game. It is not about individual brilliance, though of course that helps. Hart is just one example of a player ousted for not meeting his standards. Others have had to mould their game to his style in order to stay in favour. It’s a binary choice: play his way or don’t play. It sounds dictatorial but it is more team-oriented than that. Pep plays a system. If one player breaks out of that system to do his own thing, he leaves his teammates exposed. It is all carefully orchestrated so that all the distinct parts are working together to form a greater whole.

Herein lies the lesson. All companies have a structure. It’s important that all departments are working towards the same goal, that they are aligned and willing to do what’s best for the system to work rather than putting themselves or their department ahead of the team. Have a vision, stick to it. If you can see something doesn’t fit, remove it. It may be tough at the time, but it’s for the greater good.

Roger Federer

Lesson #5: Stay calm, make your opponent sweat

Roger Federer was the embodiment of grace. He moved balletically, floating across the court, and struck the ball with a rare poetic beauty. It was this inimitable style as much as his litany of Grand Slam titles that endeared him to the public, and brought tennis dizzying popular appeal.

The thing that amazed people most of all was his disposition. He didn’t shout, didn’t grimace, didn’t frown or moan; it seemed like he didn’t even sweat. He possessed a serenity that unsettled his opponents. On the occasions he was losing, which were rare in those early days, he seemed totally unphased by the score. Opponents hoping to rattle him ended up rattled themselves by their inability to breach his mental fortress. But it wasn’t always like that.

It’s no secret that a young Roger Federer was not simply less serene but an outright tantrum-merchant. One can see footage of his adolescent days online as he berates umpires and shatters rackets against the ground. No one thought this young hothead would go on to redefine the game he so loved.

Federer sought the help of a psychologist for his rage issues and one can only hope they were well compensated because they changed the trajectory of his career. A measured, unflappable disposition is easy to crave and hard to achieve. But entirely worthwhile if you can get it.

Any good leader will possess a level of calm and judgement. And just like you never realised quite how resilient Federer’s temperament was until he was losing, you can’t know the mental strength or fragility of your boss until things get tough. There are many things that make a good leader, but handling a bad day or difficult situation with grace and amenability is an important one. Both leaders and workers would do well to channel their inner Federer and not allow themselves to be phased by the situation around them. It doesn’t help you. It only helps those who wish you to lose. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

Lessons from sport

These are just five useful lessons but there are any number of other sports stars we could have included. For now though, if you want to succeed in business, make sure you’re willing to take some hits, have principles you’ll stick to, imbue yourself and those around you with a positive mentality, have a vision that you can help bring to life, and stay calm; if that young Swiss hothead could change his ways you can too.