Do Sports Teach You Life Lessons For Business Success…(Or do we just say that?)


In the recent conversations about the future of sports, particularly around the safety issues in playing violent games like football, there is a constant rationalization that the life lessons you learn may well be worthy of the risks. When those risks were believed limited to a balky knee or some middle age arthritis there wasn’t a lot of argument. Today, with CTE, ALS, concussions, suicide, mood swings, and the far less discussed but possibly more severe consequence of drug addition in young athletes (that begins with medically prescribed pain management medication), the consequences of early death and misery for both the victim and the family make the discussion stakes higher.

There are obviously odds involved in those risks; frequency, type and severity. By no means are those risks limited to football, whether soccer heading injuries, lacrosse balls to the heart, a baseball to the forehead or any number of other traumas familiar to team sports. The risks today are medically clearer and some prevention with technology and teaching are happening but why is it that the “benefits” are taken at face value and rarely discussed or debated except in tones of clear validation.

Let’s acknowledge that there are surely many crossover traits between sports and business success. I confess that throughout my managing and training career I have used sports analogies far too many times to count. They are usually clear, relatable and focused. The joy of winning and the agony of defeat if you will. Polling CEO’s you’s doubtless find a huge majority that prioritize their health and fitness as an element of life success and experienced that in sports. Why not? It highlights winning and losing, competitiveness, learning to get back up when you fail, practice, effort, teamwork, strategy, pressure as well as the full range of emotional development…and you know the litany. The question is what role does sports, particularly team sports, serve in teaching those lessons that clearly parallel business, and life success?

Perhaps it is a question of exclusivity. While plenty of successful business leaders may have been team captains, or stars, just as many participated without much distinction. We also can’t ignore the significant percentage that were never “sports guys” or girls and learned success through different avenues.

If you want little Johnnie or Janie to grow up and learn life lessons for success might you instead stress individual sports? Obviously there is some teamwork lesson sacrifice but there are coaches and trainers and parents who drive that will offer at least some of that lesson back. True, there is a different kind of social comradery in team sports. Having played football and lacrosse in high school and soccer and baseball growing up I certainly love many memories of team sports. More than success lessons though I can think of a bunch of lessons that weren’t so positive but perhaps they have a weighty value too. A football locker room for instance can be ignorant, intolerant, brutal, crude, bullying and cliquey.

Teams also demonstrate another parallel to business; stars are special people that get treated differently, fair or not, if you can excel to someone’s benefit you can get away with things the scrubs never do. So no debate these lessons shape and develop you; many positive, some negative but do we need “dangerous” sports to do that?

Is that a fair question? Certainly it is a personal one. Thirty something years ago I had friends whose [sorry] moms wouldn’t let them play football because it was too dangerous. There’s also no doubt the same life lessons exist in theater clubs, chess and debate teams so is it just a matter of everyone having a type of team to enable the most valuable success lessons? If you are going to become the next Stephen King or Steve Jobs and earn your living from a keyboard is there anything you really needed from any kind of team competition?

Clearly we need to make team sports safer so whatever success lessons are learned can be carried out into the world as kids become adults and compete in the real world. A fraction of one percent ever make any money playing anything professionally so wherever success behaviors like commitment, dedication, effort, creativity, quick decision making, shared joy and rewards in reaching goals and resiliency can be learned, those are the key elements we see that dictate making money and/or experiencing life success. (ie Use John Wooden’s pyramid for any walk of life.)

I guess I like Brian Billick’s response best. When the former coach and current sports commentator was asked, “Would you want your grandchild to play football?” He replied, “No…and I don’t want him to drive, snowboard or do any other activity that might cause him harm, but if it is his passion then I would support him and try to make sure he was as safely coached and equipped as possible.”

The real takeaway about learning life lessons for success is to have passion, dreams, goals, effort, support and joy (and surely more). So you don’t have to play football to have a corner office but being captain of the football team might shape you into a future CEO. The point is success evolves from life lessons learned be they on a field, a stage, a tree house or a home. Get your kids lessons that evolve from their passions and they are on the best path to lifelong success.