3 Lessons from Sports Books With More Brain Than Brawn

We tend to return again and again to our go-to resources for leadership lessons, whether that’s to a mentor or a favorite columnist or publication or even a well-worn book that’s found a permanent home near our desk, within easy reach during times of need.

But the soccer field? Or the golf course? Or the baseball diamond? Books from the sports world do not, truth be told, often rank highest in the “best business books” category but I’d like to focus on three examples that, from my perspective as both an entrepreneur and a life-long athlete, certainly make the cut.

The startup environment isn’t the same as the athletic field, of course, but these books shine the spotlight on their similarities: the need  for creative vision, a winning mindset, and tenacity, all adding up to the competitive edge that makes some athletes, and some entrepreneurs, succeed where others fail.

Every shot has a purpose. So should your every action.

Yes, it’s a golf book. And yes, your game will probably improve if you read it and follow the lessons it contains. But Every Shot Must Have a Purpose is also one of the best business books I’ve ever read and there’s a simple reason why: It’s about vision, and mindset.

Author Pia Nilsson would know. She coached golfer Annika Sorenstam, the only female professional to shoot a 59 in competition, as well as the Swedish national golf team. Together with co-author Lynn Marriott, Nilsson created a system called GOLF54, which integrates the physical, technical, mental, emotional and social aspects of a player’s game. The secret sauce is in the pre-shot routine. Mechanics of a swing matter, of course, but the focused player with a clear, defined vision is who wins, every time.

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I recalled this lesson recently as I prepared to give our company’s pitch presentation, which I’d given many times before, to a new prospective client. The mechanics were the same in terms of narrative and takeaways, but it was my “pre-shot routine,” that is, my visualization of success within the context of this particular client’s emotional and social character, that shifted the outcome in our favor.

Don’t underestimate tenacity and mental toughness.

The goal is to win at baseball, unapologetically, but the technique outlined in Mental Toughness: Baseball’s Winning Edge applies to every single at bat and every single pitch. Which means that, when extrapolated, the technique applies to preparedness and reaching maximum performance at each opportunity regardless of the playing field.

There is a tenacity about this book. It communicates the advantages of mental and physical readiness at literally every step of the way. Not only is no stone left unturned, as the saying goes, but no stone is left unexamined, unmeasured, or unweighted in relation to its usefulness toward achieving the goal. It’s a reminder of the unceasing, heads-up grit required for victory on the baseball diamond or, just as unceasingly, in the startup arena as well.

Find the competitive edge.

Ben Lyttleton begins the narrative of Edge: Leadership Secrets from Football’s Top Thinkers with a task that would be enviable to anyone who’s ever had a hankering for sports journalism: to identify the next generation of top football talent, represented by 60 players from around the world, aged 17 or below.

As Lyttleton soon discovers, “talent” was just the starting point, and a given. There was something that gave the players an edge who ultimately make the list, but it wasn’t their talent. He spends the rest of the book exploring what that something is, well aware all along that football is “ultimately just a metaphor for life,” in the words of Jorge Valdano, a former Real Madrid player and coach who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina.

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The titles of the five primary chapters hold the keys: cohesion, adaptability, decision-making, resilience and creativity. Rather than generic brushstrokes, however, Lyttleton dives deep into the mechanics of those concepts from both the player and the coach’s point of view, generating a blueprint for the interrelated qualities of a successful team.

Browse the business section in airport bookstores when you travel internationally. Since it’s written by a British author for the UK/European audience, I likely would have never come across this book in my usual outlets in the U.S. But I found it in the Düsseldorf airport on a recent work trip to Germany and, as our business expands internationally, this book proves valuable for two reasons: it’s increased my familiarity with the “common language” of sport, particularly a beloved sport in Europe and South America, and it’s made me familiar both with major players as well as milestone matches. Small talk? Maybe. But it’s worthwhile enough to establish common ground with prospective clients and partners.

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