Winning business strategies from sports
by Sterling Thoughts on October 6th, 2012

Can sports really teach us about winning business strategies in a highly competitive market?  

Let’s find out from these real life stories...

1) "I'm on a course."

Peter Murray, a well-established business owner & successful MD of a multi-million dollar nationwide business based in Auckland (featured in the Chamber of Commerce Aug. 2012 Innovate magazine issue, see ‘Our Fans’) likes to recall a conversation he has with one of his clients every so often. The client would answer his mobile phone during business hours with the words, “I’m on a course at the moment. Can I call you back later?”
 
Duly impressed initially with his client’s dedication to his professional development based on the number of courses he seems to be always attending, it was not until a few more such conversations later that Peter figured out that ‘course’ in that case actually meant ‘golf course’.
 
The client’s view, it turned out, is that a half-day or even a full-day of golf, which he enjoys tremendously, actually serves the additional underlying purpose of enabling him to detach in order to maintain a healthy and crucial sense of perspective which he needs in order to find that balance of working ON his business as well as IN his business.

This also results in enabling him to work ‘smarter’ rather than ‘harder’, and to focus on the handful of key areas to make the biggest positive impact (80-20), rather than on pages of ‘To Do’ items on a list.
"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail." Abraham Maslow
 
Whether it is achieving a healthier balance to maintain perspective in your business or it is pursuing a professional development path to acquire new skills to add specific value to your business, ‘being on a course’ can be a good thing.


From the London 2012 Olympics

During August, the whole world was dazzled by the great spectacle in the greatest city in the world where the best physical feats & prowess of humanity were united & celebrated. And what a show it was! Athletes from all corners of the globe turned up in Blighty to represent both themselves and their countries in what they did best.
 
Looking at HOW they actually manage to be the best in the world in what they do, those critical success factors, one finds that while these are very individual to the athlete on the one hand, on the other hand, they all have something equally unique in common – a very clear strategy on HOW TO WIN
 
"Nothing is impossible. With so many people saying it couldn't be done, all it takes is an imagination." - Michael Phelps (London 2012 Olympic US swimmer - Most-decorated Olympian of all time with 22 medals, 18 of which gold) 


2) Muhammad Ali - Strategic Marketing & Execution

Ali was acknowledged as one of the all-time sporting greats during the London 2012 Opening Ceremony.
 
One of the biggest contributing feats that propelled Ali to that status was the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight on 30th October 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) which also featured in the Award-winning documentary ‘When we were kings’.

That fight for Ali was a ‘Must Win’- It was either to be a come-back to the world boxing stage or a relegation to the dusty confines of sports statistics.

He had lost his boxing license for his involvement in the US Civil Rights movement in 1967, and when he got it back in 1971, he lost his World Heavyweight Championship title to Joe Frazier. He had not fought competitively for over 3 years after that defeat, coming into that highly-publicised event in Zaire.
 
By stark contrast, his opponent in Zaire was George Foreman (today probably better known for his healthy cooking appliances like the Foreman Grill, which even I have one). In 1974, Foreman was the World Heavyweight Champion, the 1968 Olympics boxing gold medallist, and a younger, stronger, fearsome boxer due to his sheer physical dominance in punching power, size and weight. He had also knocked out Joe Frazier six times within just two rounds. 
Ali’s chances were looking grim at best. The main talking point for sports pundits was mostly about how many rounds Ali would last in the ring against Foreman. Ali knew he had to have a clear strategy to successfully differentiate against Foreman before and during the fight in order to prevail.
 
And what Ali came up with was remarkable marketing & tactical genius that made history...  
 
Both fighters spent much of the summer of 1974 in Zaire to train, while getting their bodies accustomed to the local tropical climate and the new time zone. Ali was much more famous to the local population for being his usual provocatively eloquent self during his numerous media appearances. He used this to the maximum in many pre-fight interviews to clearly insist that he was not out of shape (giving the impression to everyone, including Foreman, that he was worried that he actually might be) and that he would be training his hardest, day & night, to ‘float like a butterfly & sting like a bee’, so that Foreman would end up ‘lumbering in the ring not knowing what has hit him’. He did plenty of Foreman impressions for the cameras to illustrate that point.
 
In private for Ali, however, it was a different story altogether. Both Ali and Foreman had to share the training equipment in a gym. Ali’s trainers recall the state of the punching bag every time they would turn up to use it after Foreman had trained – it would be completely flattened on both sides where Foreman had been practising his punches, known as the ‘haymakers’. Ali decided to focus primarily on one thing – blocks. He would spend hours on end parrying punches from a strong sparring partner and hone his skills in blocking during training, while in public he continued to goad Foreman by showing his ‘floating & stinging’ techniques for the cameras.
After a three-day extended musical festival extravaganza Africa-style, came fight night, to be broadcasted live across the world. Foreman entered the ring quite confident of a win while Ali maintained his outwardly provocative characteristic demeanour. Ali immediately proceeded by attacking Foreman from the start with unconventional jabs with speed & skill to show that he was indeed planning to execute on his publicly stated strategy of ‘floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee’. Foreman responded as predicted by trying to pin Ali with his ‘haymakers’ to stop him from ‘floating’ away. This pushed Ali to the ropes time after time, and Ali focused on deflecting those heavy punches like he did during his long training sessions – a boxing technique that became known as the famous ‘Rope-a-dope’. Ali would also cling to Foreman and goad him with verbal jibes like, “They told me you could punch, George!”, “Is that all you got?”, “Try harder, George!” This enraged Foreman more and more. He kept responding ever wildly with his ‘haymakers’ while Ali parried or blocked. 

By the eighth round, Foreman grew tired from the physical exertion of his powerful punches and Ali knocked him down.
 
 
 
The ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ win by Ali remains to this day one of the greatest sporting achievements of all time. This fight showed the need for awareness of the local environment one is operating within, the versatility required in adapting to a competitor’s strengths & weaknesses, and the tactical genius needed in devising a winning strategy that could be clinically & flawlessly executed for the successful outcome to be achieved. 
Ali and Foreman became friends after the fight. In 1996 when the documentary about the fight, “When we were kings”, won an Academy Award (Oscar), Ali suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, could not walk up to the podium unaided. George Foreman helped him to climb those steps so he could claim his award.
 
“What matters is not how many times you get knocked down but how many times you get back up again.”
 
"I hated every minute of training. But I said, don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion." Muhammad Ali.

 

3) Mo Farrah & Usain Bolt - Transformative Coaching

Mo ‘Mobot’ Farrah
Mo Farah is the British, European and World record holder for the 5,000m and 10,000m races for which he won double Olympic gold in London 2012 and became a much-loved figure of Team GB. He is an ambassador for BUPA, Lucozade and Nike. His coach Alberto Salazar recently said, "Mo dug deeper than I have seen any athlete do. You're talking about a man who has more heart, more guts and more soul than any athlete I've ever seen."
 
However, what Salazar had previously said about Mo was, "... the weakest athlete I'd ever trained – in terms of core strength and being able to do push-ups, sit-ups and single-leg squats. He was a 90lb weakling. He was a skinny distance runner with a great engine but no upper body. At the end of races, he would tire and his head would bob around and his arms would flail."
 
Although Mo had the sheer determination to succeed, he lacked some of the physical attributes that could enable him to do so. His coach recognised both - maximised the effect of the former while improving on the latter, resulting in an athlete being the best in the world in two disciplines, while maintaining the most humble, fun-loving & unifying qualities as an Olympian for his country.
 
 
Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt
Usain Bolt holds the world’s record for the 100m and 200m races, and with his team mates, the 4 X 100m relay.  He is the first man to win six Olympic gold medals in sprinting, and is a five-time world champion. He was the first to achieve a "double double" by winning 100m and 200m titles at consecutive Olympics (Beijing 2008 and London 2012). He topped this through the first "double triple" (including 4x100m relays). He is perhaps one of the most recognised modern athlete, hails from the economically impoverished country of Jamaica, and has a trademark ‘lightning bolt’ pose that he ‘strikes’ after a winning run. (Picture showing Mo mimicking Usain lightning bolt, while Usain mimics Mo’s ‘Mobot’ trademark pose).
 
For Usain, his faith in his coach Glen Mills is much more obvious & public. When questioned about running 10.04 seconds in Ostrava in the run-up to London 2012, he laughed away concerns about his form and said, "I'm confident that myself and my coach can put together a programme to be a champion. I will focus on that. My coach is the greatest coach ever and knows exactly what to do to get me to the top. I'm not worried."
 
The ‘coolest sportsman in the world’ espouses the virtues of his coach while laughing away the idea that this might be a sign of weakness or might provoke embarrassment. They work together on a ‘Fit for Purpose’ plan; the coach thinks, plans & supports; Usain executes on that plan and wins his races time after time. 


“Always be confident about your preparation.” Usain Bolt  
For both Mo and Usain, the love for what they do and the pure enjoyment they derive from their races are palpable. They are relaxed and have great fun racing. They are in their element. It does not feel like work to them. Just like running our own business, the journey is as enjoyable, fulfilling & rewarding, as is crossing the ‘finish line’ for each race, striking a pose and climbing the podium for the medal. 

4) The Team GB Rowing team - Having a secret plan - “Growing a bigger heart”

New Zealand achieved an incredible feat during London 2012 for being the 4th most decorated nation in the Olympics per population size (capita) and also for the NZ Rowing Team to achieve 2nd place in the world, despite the absence of two of the country’s rowing world champions from the Athens & Beijing Olympics - the much-loved Georgina & Caroline Evers-Swindell, twin sisters from Hastings.
Team GB were no.1 in rowing during London 2012, with a total of 9 medals, 4 of which gold. It is the old team of the legendary Sir Steve Redgrave who remains one of the world’s most decorated rowers from Great Britain with 21 medals in total (incl. 5 Olympic gold, 9 world championship gold, 3 Commonwealth Games gold). He took the Olympic flame from David Beckham to pass on to the younger generation of Olympians to light the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony. 
In addition to the usual comprehensive training that is required at this level, it seems the Team GB Rowing team had a hidden ace up their sleeves when it came to physical conditioning with a difference, as shown recently in the fascinating BBC’s Horizon documentary presented by Dr. Kevin Fong, consultant at UCL Hospital in London.
 
A normal person’s heart rate at rest is between 60 – 80 bpm (beats per minute) while about 160 - 220 bpm at its peak. The Team GB Rowing team work closely with a cardiologist who regularly monitors the heart of each rower through ultra-sound scans during specially-tailored training sessions. The aim is to exercise in such a way that the actual size of the athlete’s heart increases so that more blood can be pumped out throughout the body for each beat. 
 
A normal person’s heart rate might deliver about 15 litres of blood while the athlete’s would deliver 45 to 60 litres for the same about of beats per minute, thereby allowing more oxygenated blood to fuel the muscles required to row and for much longer too. The athlete would also achieve maximum heart rate level much later than a normal person would, enabling a much longer ramp-up period, as well as much greater ongoing endurance performance during the race.
 
In business too, we find that developing that hidden key differentiating edge is ever so crucial, especially during these highly-competitive and economically-sensitive times.
Whilst the external factors impacting our business cannot be easily influenced, we do have full control over our internal operations, our tactical initiatives and in developing our core strategic strengths.

 
“If we want to change the world around us, we must first change the world inside of us.” Mahatma Gandhi


From now on, whether you decide to ‘go on a course’ or (as many mostly male business owners tend to do) settle yourself down comfortably on your favourite sofa in front of the telly with a few beers to watch some sports, you can always reply when asked, that you are in fact learning about strategies & tactics to improve your business!

“If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford
Successful Olympians and successful business owners have one thing in common – they both believe that they can. And with a bit of help & support, at the right time, in the right direction, they are both right.
 

“As is a tale, so is life. It is not how long it is but how good it is”. Seneca (4BC to 65AD).

What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.
Olympic success and business transformation are both examples of a caterpillar realising its full potential & turning into a butterfly.
Contact us to find out how we can get YOU to realise YOUR full potential.


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