Only practice gives a sporting chance


Coaches from the world of sport know that talent must be nurtured

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A modern-day tale of two cities compares Sheffield with Rome: both are built on seven hills, and both have rivers running through them. There the similarities end.

We recently ran a round-table event looking to test the parallels that are drawn frequently between sport and business. Both domains offer the potential to be high-performance environments. Both domains share the same requirements for leadership, teamwork and a winning mindset. But, like the Steel City and the Eternal City, the similarities are limited.

The sort of performance improvement that investment has delivered in sport cannot be guaranteed in the same way in organizations. The nature of sport is such that performance is clear, evident and mostly objective. The spoils of sporting success are quantifiable – goals, tries, wickets and the like. This is unlike business, where there is often a raft of complex goals that can conflict.

There are more critical differences. One is demographic – the career span of athletes is far shorter than most business careers, thus policy is aimed at one age group only. This contrasts with the six-generation companies of the near future.

What of the performance-rehearsal ratio? Here again the two domains contrast sharply. The proportion of sportspeople’s time that is spent training compared to playing for real is a mirror image of business, where training is a tiny fraction of one’s yearly input.

It is in this key area of difference that business needs to be more like the sporting world. However gifted the athlete, there is an acceptance in sport that natural ability is only part of what is needed, and success is as much a function of training. This is less so in business, much of which still clings to the myth of the hero-leader and mega-manager, for whom training is a distraction from their natural dynamism.

The transferability of sporting principles to business is useful if leaders embrace athletic coaches’ recognition of the importance of practice. Practice means two things – the act of repeating the discipline until one excels at it; and being a practitioner – doing it.

Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization of K Anders Ericsson’s research emphasized that success was to a great degree a product of practice. It is not necessary to accept all of Gladwell’s conclusions to appreciate that putting in effort, consciously striving to improve, setting targets and measuring progress will yield results.

The second definition of practice – the leader as a practitioner of leadership – receives much less attention. This leads to problems. Individuals are promoted to leadership and management positions because they have demonstrated competence in the activity they are supposed to manage. This is like rewarding a great centre-forward for his goalscoring by making him team captain, despite the fact that he is a lousy leader and unwilling to work on becoming a better one.

At senior levels of business, and in non-corporate arenas such as politics or high-growth startups, leadership as an activity requires hours of practice and effort as a discipline in its own right. Yet a commitment to improvement is often neglected. This omission can account for the spectacular failure of high-profile figures who are moved into leadership positions from technical excellence and fail to appreciate that not only do they have hours of practice to invest before they can claim mastery, but they have to keep practising. Just as the elite athlete cannot rely solely on natural ability, even those individuals who claim to be ‘natural leaders’ must practise to develop their capability. Sport has recognized – and acted on – the simple truth that any natural acumen has to be nurtured, or it is wasted. Business still hasn’t fully got to grips with this, and that is the fundamental difference.

Some say business is like sport. Like Sheffield and Rome, they do exhibit some similarities – but not many important ones.