You may spend a lot of your time behind a desk devoting more of your efforts to exercising your brain than your body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your work is incredibly dissimilar from that of top athletes. Many of the skills that make entrepreneurs successful have a lot in common with those that enable athletes to get the gold (or silver or bronze).
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You don’t need to get to a gym and start doing hours of physical training every day, but for entrepreneurial success, you should pay attention to these key takeaways from how the top athletes train and win.
1. Set goals.
Define what you want to achieve. To keep herself and her training on track every day, gold medalist Natalie Coughlin sets both short-term and long-term goals and commits to consistently achieving them.
Setting goals turns ideas into something tangible and achievable, particularly when you have a mix of high-level, long-term goals that you break down into the smaller goals you need to achieve in order to get there. By sitting down to really work out what you want and what you need to accomplish to get to what you want, you create a clear path to success.
The path may veer into different directions here and there, but as long as you create clearly defined goals and hold yourself to them, your chances of success greatly increase.
2. Seek out help.
Like entrepreneurs, superstar athletes are often independent and driven, but the most successful amongst them have the smarts to see that they need others to succeed. No athlete gets to the games entirely on their own.
Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin talks openly about how important her relationship with her coach is to her success. For Olympic runner Bob Schul, one of the most influential factors to his success was his coach and mentor Mihály Iglói.
Between the coaches, doctors, and the loved ones that all support and encourage athletes, winning a medal even in an individual sport is something of a team effort.
Running a business is no different. Finding mentors who know more than you and hiring people who specialize in all the things you don’t can make all the difference in going from being someone who just has a good idea to someone who runs a successful business.
3. You have to be all in.
Nobody makes it onto a professional team that just kind of sort of wants to be there. Everyone who gets picked decided a long time ago that this one thing was his or her number one goal and priority.
Four-time gold medal winner Jesse Owens has been widely quoted as saying “we all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”
If you want to get a business off the ground and keep it successful in the long term, the odds are against you. To beat those odds, you have to make your business a top priority and commit fully to making it work.
4. But also, learn how to pace yourself.
Olympic training regimens are time consuming and brutal, for sure. What they also are though is carefully crafted to push the limits of what the human body can accomplish without ever going past what’s safe or healthy for the athlete. That’s a delicate balance.
Too much training counter intuitively leads to a worse performance, if not injuries that take athletes out of the running entirely.
Just as overtraining can lead to failure for athletes, overworking can cause burnout for entrepreneurs. Stress can have some pretty serious effects on our health. You have to work hard to succeed, but not too hard.
5. Be willing to take risks.
In response to critics who said he stayed in the ring for too long, Olympic gold medalist Muhammed Ali famously said, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Many sports are dangerous and all of them come with the constant risk of losing — and if you get far enough, losing in a very public way. There’s a lot that’s scary about being a professional athlete, but the rewards are great.
Anyone who’s pursued entrepreneurship knows the same applies. Whether it’s quitting your stable job to see if your business idea will work or taking out a big loan to finance your company, the risks are significant. But the end goal of being a successful business owner makes all those risks worth it.
6. Focus on the long game.
Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones recently announced that she wouldn’t be heading to Rio for this year’s Olympics due a recent hip injury, but added “See you in 2020 homies.”
Knowing she couldn’t make her best showing this year without the potential of harming herself further for future competition, she made the smart move to hold off on going for a medal today to increase her chances of getting one later.
Success in most things comes from playing the long game. Most Olympic athletes train for years in order to make the Olympic team. During that time, the rewards are virtually nonexistent. All the work is going toward a potential, future award (that not all will achieve). But the possibility of that gold medal makes the long years worth it.
In most cases, running a business works the same way. Unless you’re abnormally lucky, your first few years will be demanding, difficult, and far more full of risk than reward. But only those who play the long game and stick it out make it to the finish line.
7. Diversify your skill set.
Every athlete has one sport they focus on. The runners are focused on improving their run times, the swimmers devote most of their training to swimming, and the gymnasts give their attention to perfecting gymnastics.
Nonetheless, many of them benefit from mixing things up a bit. If you look at the exercise regimens of different Olympic athletes, you’ll see it’s not all one thing all the time. Skier Julia Mancuso does squats and free-diving, as well as keeping up with her ski practice. Luger Erin Hamlin does weight training, pull-ups, and yoga.
Every Olympian focuses on one thing, but all of them do a mix of exercises in order to excel at their one specialty.
Entrepreneurs have to wear many hats as well. You can’t just be an idea guy, you have to figure out how to make plans, execute a variety of tasks, hire and manage the right people, and attend to a wide number of other needs that will come up in the course of running your business.
Be willing to hire and delegate when needed, but also make an effort to learn at least a little bit about most of the skills and knowledge areas needed to keep your business going.
8. Push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Comfort is nice. We all like being comfortable, but it’s not where the people who find the most success in life live.
Many athletes train at high altitudes to push their bodies further while doing the same amount of exercise. Since high altitudes have less oxygen, the body compensates with extra red blood cells and the athlete can return to lower altitudes better prepared to take on their sport.
Many Olympians who compete in outdoor events make a point of training on difficult terrain, so they’re that much more prepared for whatever challenges the Olympics courses throw their way.
The lesson is clear, there’s a benefit to pushing yourself beyond what’s comfortable. That’s true in business as well. The most obvious, comfortable route is not always the one that will lead to the most reward. Try things that fall outside of your typical wheelhouse and consider routes that wouldn’t be your first choice.
9. Be persistent.
It’s easy to come up with excuses not to do something. What’s harder is facing down those excuses — even good, persuasive ones — and continuing in your efforts in spite of them.
Olympic kayaker Carrie Johnson had a great excuse to stop kayaking competitively in 2003 when she learned she had Crohn’s disease. Battling a disease and competing in the Olympics is a lot for one person to deal with. But as you can guess, based on the fact that we’re writing about her here, she not only went on to compete in the 2004 Olympics, but then again in 2008 and 2012.
Not every athlete deals with a health issue like Crohn’s disease, but almost every athlete will deal with an injury at some point. An injury’s a perfectly good reason to stop training and focus your efforts on something that doesn’t push your body so hard. But at some point, every athlete has faced that easy excuse to stop and made a choice to keep going.
When you run a business you will face difficulties and challenges. It’s not a question of if, but of when. You can easily turn those challenges into excuses to stop, or you can take the more difficult path and keep going. Persistence is a necessary ingredient in every entrepreneurial success, just as it is for every medal an athlete wins.
10. Take care of yourself.
Athletic training is hard. Entrepreneurship is hard. Most of the lessons on the list drive that idea home. Success in both arenas takes a lot of work, a lot of risk, and some falls along the way.
But one of the things most successful athletes and entrepreneurs do that people don’t talk about as much is find little indulgences that help balance out the work.
Most Olympic athletes have a routine, a particular hobby, or a number of non-sports interests that help them take a break and relax in between bouts of training. Speed skater J.R. Celski takes trips to the sauna after his workouts. Snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler meditates every day. And skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender likes to go fishing.
Make sure that, somewhere in your to-do list, you make sure to fit in whatever your version of fishing or meditation is. The culture of entrepreneurship is so focused on hard work, there’s a risk of feeling guilty anytime you set aside a night for watching Netflix or take a week off to go on a well-earned vacation, but we all need that time.
You might be a persistent, risk-taking, hard-working entrepreneur, but you’re still a human being. If Olympic athletes can make room in their schedule to relax, then you can too.