I was recently having dinner with my son’s basketball coach and the question came up, “What’s the difference between sports and business?”
So, I’m writing this on Super Bowl Sunday.
It’s a day when not too many are thinking about custom embroidered and printed logo apparel, though I’m sure I have some company as a small business owner dreaming of one day having an ad air during the Big Game.
I’ve been an on and off again football fan over the years. I grew up in the New York area, and was 9 when the Jets and Joe Namath won their Super Bowl. It has been mostly futility for Jets fans since those days, and the same can be said for Mets and Knicks fans, my other favorite teams since childhood.
My first foray into organized team sports was Junior High School football. There had been a long-standing and successful coach of this program, who had been loved by his players and was well respected in the community. But in a dispute with the school, he quit the year before I started playing. In his place, they hired an English teacher from the High School up the road who had never coached before, and, as far as we could tell, had never played either. It was chaos out there for the first couple of practices. It felt dangerous to me, so I quit, missing the opportunity to join my friends in going 0 and 18 through our two years of eligibility.
Basketball was my favorite sport to play growing up. I believe that given a few different turns in the road, in one capacity or another, either as a player, coach or maybe as an administrator, it could have been a career.
But the road didn’t fork that way. There had also been a long-term basketball coach at my Junior High School. He had also been very successful and was loved by his players and the community. I guess money was tight back then, because he also got into a dispute with the school and he, too, quit the year before I got there. In his place, they brought in a young Social Studies teacher, Mr. Welsh, who also wasn’t much of a player and had never coached before.
Mr. Welsh was a pretty good Social Studies teacher, but he didn’t have a knack for coaching. We weren’t even competitive in a single game. We just couldn’t get a shot off. I was the captain and felt like a loser. My parents, doing what parents do, tried to make me feel better and bought me a pair of blue suede Puma Clydes, Walt Frazier’s signature shoe. Other than the fact that they were less comfortable than my Converse High Tops (the most uncomfortable basketball shoes ever made in history) and turned all of my socks blue, they looked amazing and I remember them fondly to this day.
In High School the long-term and successful coach hadn’t quit yet, but he was hated by his players and the community. I soon came to learn that this lack of affection was well-deserved. My fondest memory of Coach Kelly was the way he bellowed “YOU STINK” any time anyone made a mistake. To this day, my brother and I still greet each other with this warm welcome.
Admittedly, I was from the “right” side of the tracks, which is not where Coach Kelly had grown up. This is always a big handicap in sports. I stuck with it, though, and was starting to make some progress when I developed an unfortunate little stutter step when I got the ball. I got dropped from the program like a 50-pound medicine ball and did what a lot of washed up players do. I got into coaching.
I went back to my Junior High School and talked my way into an assistant coaching position with Mr. Welsh. This allowed me to coach my younger brother, Andy, upon whom I hate to admit I did experiment with some of Coach Kelly’s more imaginative motivational techniques. Unfortunately, neither of us were able to overcome Mr. Welsh’s suffocated offense.
Moving on to college, I don’t believe the vaunted Columbia Lions won a single football game in the four years that I was there (I think they may have set a record of some sort) and the basketball team was equally unsuccessful.
Looking at the bigger picture at the time, Jimmy Carter was President and got attacked by a rabbit during a marathon. People were waiting in lines for gas. Americans were being held hostage in Iran, and the helicopters we sent over to rescue them crashed in the desert before they even got there.
When I graduated from college, the economy was shrinking, interest rates were headed up over 20%, and it was virtually impossible to find an apartment in New York City. Joggers were getting attacked in Central Park and the subways looked like something out of a dystopian sci-fi movie.
Had I known better, I might have been discouraged.
The athletic bright spots were rare, but there were a few.
While coaching Junior High Basketball, one of the player’s younger sisters needed a coach for their soccer team and for some reason, despite my aversion for soccer, they asked me to do it. We didn’t lose a game, and I had never had so much fun in my life. I was asked to be on a basketball team for the Catholic Church in town (I was the only Jewish kid in the league) and we won our division. That was also a lot of fun and I learned how to cross myself before shooting foul shots.
In college, I played club lacrosse and we had a transfer goalie from Cornell, at the time a perennial national powerhouse. No one could score against this guy and we won a lot of very low-scoring games. I also played club squash and we had a couple of really good prep school players and a few kids from India and Pakistan, where squash is a national pastime. We held our own and actually beat Army at West Point one year. Now that was a thrill!
“ I got a great education in College in New York and learned a ton about literature, art, history, science and philosophy. I also learned how to survive and thrive in one of the most competitive, great cities of the world. I saw the good, along with the bad, that happens when people of all kinds, from all places and backgrounds, with all kinds of beliefs, aspirations and approaches to challenges must live and work together. From all this I began to understand what winning and losing really meant, and the roles of reflection, cooperation, teamwork and discipline play in giving a person or a team the best chance to succeed. The real education about winning, losing and the intersection between sports and business, however, was yet to come. “
I started my business in my early 20’s and was largely consumed by that. The Mets had a few great years in there and I was pulled back to sports and baseball by that great team. It turns out that riddled by drugs and dysfunction, they were a house of cards, and it wasn’t long before the Miracle Mets were cellar dwellers once again.
And then I had kids. Time to create my own dynasty!
I started coaching my kids early and having drawn the line at soccer this time around, concentrated mostly on basketball, with a little dabbling in tennis and baseball. My fourth and fifth kids, both boys, had more interest, though not necessarily more talent than the others. From the time they were each about 5, around the first grade, I was starting to get the hang of coaching and we won a lot.
By the time they were each in 8th grade, my two youngest boys had been playing with the same kids on teams I coached for 6 or 7 years and both had undefeated Middle School teams. The older of the two developed an interest in music (I couldn’t be much help there) and stopped playing basketball in High School, but the youngest is now a good high school player and is hoping to play in college.
And here is the interesting part. As I got better at coaching, I was also getting better at running my business. Maybe I was just getting more experience at both, but it felt to me like it wasn’t a coincidence.
Despite all the obvious similarities between sports and business, there were also some just as obvious differences. One of the questions I always had was “Why is it OK to be able to yell at the kids during a game, but it is never OK to yell at people at work?” That is a joke. It is never ok to yell at anyone, but there certainly are times at work when at the very least I would love to have my coaches whistle!
Sports and business teams share one very important, basic equation: a person or team’s skill level is the sum of natural talent, hard work, and constructive coaching. In sports and in business, for a team of talented people to thrive, that talent needs to be developed through hard work and some reasonable and motivating structure organizing the individual and collective effort.
So in that sense, all teams are alike.
The differences between sports and business
The differences are considerably more subtle, but pretty interesting and illustrative of what makes each unique. The differences also highlight how an appreciation and the study of one can help benefit the other.
Sports are great because they are ultimately just a game, where in business what happens really does matter. In sports, when the buzzer sounds, you might not like the final score, but it pretty much ends at that.
In business, if you break a rule or violate trust, it can be very difficult to recover. In team sports there is always an opponent in a different color jersey, whereas in business, despite the obvious competition in the marketplace, the clock never stops and the real competition is against how good you were yesterday or today. If you get worse in business, your existence is threatened. If you get better, you grow, people learn, and new opportunities present themselves posing new and exciting challenges.
In sports, teammates come together for a game, a season, or maybe a couple of years at most, and are largely unformed adults.
In business, leaders are generally mature adults, and the goal is to build a team that will endure essentially forever.
In sports the rules and boundaries are clearly set enabling anyone to quickly slot into a position and be relatively productive immediately.
In business, every organization and its rules are unique, and relationships are built over years through careful nurturing and a great investment of time. The really great teams in business have been working together for a long time. They have shared and grown close through the successes and failures of all kinds of professional and life experiences. The product of the shared effort and experience, when successful, can be the creation of a tremendous amount of wealth, jobs, innovation, economic growth and progress for humanity.
Because it is not fundamentally serious, sports can be fun in a way that is not possible in business. But in both, it is the shared experience of the collective effort that brings teammates together and makes it truly fun. That is the greatest lesson business needs to learn from sports – how can business, too, be fun. How can a vision be developed, and a cause expressed that will bring people together to work toward a common goal and share an experience in doing so. When this happens, people are engaged, work is meaningful, and business too, is fun.
It can be easy in sports to get lost in our passions. Sometimes this can happen in work, too. If those passions are only aroused in pursuit of money or power, however, as essentially selfish goals, they will not be sustainable because they ultimately divide, instead of bringing people together. If a work team can unite around a goal of learning and improving, and talented people are coached by mindful leaders to channel their efforts productively, that team will win, people will have fun, and they and the world will be a better place because of it.
What sports can learn from business is the value and importance of a longer-term view. We see this happening more and more now in professional sports, the ultimate hybrid of sports and business, where, with an increasing emphasis on data and analytics, many of the prejudices leading to bad short-term, win-today decisions are being revealed. One of the great stories from the NFL this year was the resurgence of the Cleveland Browns who went 7-8-1 this year after an 0-16 2017. As a result of recommendations from an analytics staff led by the original Oakland Athletics Moneyball team, the Browns have, among other things, taken a novel approach to their draft selection process by placing a higher value on later round as opposed to first round picks, with the longer-term goal of winning 100 games in 10 years, as opposed to just making the playoffs next year, or the year after.
The win-at-all-costs-now attitude that has long dominated sports has led to some shameful behavior over the years. We have really hurt many kids and put a lot of fundamentally decent people in very difficult positions because of this short-term thinking. It has led to some terrible outcomes in business as well.
The real heroes in both business and sports are all talented, but what makes them people we look up to and admire – what makes them exemplary – is their courage, hard work and positive impact they make on those around them. What these individuals do with their talent is more inspiring than the talent itself. If we teach our kids playing sports that lesson, what you do with your talent is much more important than that talent itself, they will win plenty of games, grow as people, and will be prepared to find happiness and success in life. If we lead and teach based on these principles in business, our teams will work well together, we will solve problems and overcome obstacles and create value in the world through meaningful relationships and work.
Like many other fans of unsuccessful NFL teams, I had rooted against the boring Patriots for a long time. Recently, however, through my interest in teams, leadership, sports, and how to be better at whatever it is that I do, I learned a little more about Bill Belichick and his approach to his job. I now believe he is a brilliant, high character guy who is a tremendous worker, values people, and takes the proper long-term view in pursuit of success. Like those who had the good luck of being college basketball fans when John Wooden was winning all those championships, I believe we are fortunate to be able to watch Bill Belichick work.
As far as I could tell, I was utterly alone in thinking the Super Bowl was a great game – kind of like a pitcher’s duel in baseball. Even our Boston natives at the office were bored. I enjoyed every play and for once thought the game was better than the commercials.
My Grandmother used to like to say that in life it is better to be lucky than smart. She didn’t really mean it, but she got her point across. Luck matters, but it is not what really determines quality. She wasn’t much of a sports fan but did like to root for the underdog, so she probably wouldn’t have been a Patriots fan. She also used to like to channel her inner Leo Durocher and say nice guys finish last, but she didn’t mean that, either.