Everything I learned playing sports as a kid I learned again in business school, then again competing and watching sports as an “adult” (used generously). Today I spend quite a bit of time studying competition. In business, winning and losing is more dynamic than it is in sports. There are often multiple competitors and “wins” and “losses” aren’t so cut-and-dried. A company can be a big winner in terms of market share at the expense of profit margins, or vice versa. Ultimately each company determines how and where it would like to win. Many of them can learn from what the world’s best athletes do to maintain an edge.
Learn all the rules: Rules help frame your approach. Of course, you wouldn’t kick a basketball or try to hit a tennis ball over the fence. But knowing the subtleties of penalties and scoring offer room to find opportunities. Learning the rules helps the competitor focus her energy on the most important thing, which is learning how to follow the rules more efficiently than your opponent.
Learn the customs: Customs are the unwritten rules. Don’t flop in basketball (I’m looking at you, LeBron). Apologize when your tennis shot hits the net and lands on the other side. Sportsmanship is critical in competition in the same way being able to work with people is critical in business. Maybe it shouldn’t matter how you treat your co-workers, teammates or opponents, but we have seen time and time again that tone and context are critical to communication.
There are good and bad misses: Once you know the rules and customs you can find ways to arbitrage them through competitive psychology. We know that the best hitter in MLB history, Ty Cobb, got out over 63% of the time. A “crafty” pitcher moves inside and outside and high to low to get into the hitter’s head, usually throwing a strike on the inside corner then a slider low and away on the next pitch. Having a plan includes knowing you will miss sometimes. Knowing when to take risks that could lead to misses allows the competitor to keep his opponent guessing. You can be sure he will often guess wrong if these misses are places properly.
Feedback is critical: Soliciting and giving solid feedback are two of the most important parts of being a great teammate. If you work on the assumption that your teammates are giving you feedback to try to make you a better player, the times you get burned by nefarious partners will seem less destructive. Plus, you need their help. The best athletes in the world have coaches who are able to point out subtle blind spots in their fields of vision.
Test, adjust, repeat: Top athletes are constantly tinkering to try to find an extra advantage. Roger Federer changed his racket in 2013 to add more power to his game after the influx of bigger, stronger athletes (and his own age) began to catch up with him. These types of athletes are confident in their ability to stay the course, so aren’t afraid to make radical changes that maximize a competitive edge. They know they can always go back to the tried and true.
It’s not personal: Competition gives us the chance to test our skills against worthy opponents. Those who end up on the losing end benefit from learning several ways not to win. Those on the winning end know that their plan worked, but are humbled to know that their opponent will come back stronger the next time. Learning to be gracious in victory and defeat is the mark of a seasoned vet.
Winning is fine, but losing is the worst: The expectation of a competitor is to create a plan, execute it, and win. Anything less is failure. The feeling of losing is a strong motivator to go back to the top of this list and fill in some gaps. The end of one game/ match/ heat/ tournament is the beginning of the next.