What Great Athletes and Great Salespeople Have in Common

by | May 12, 2022 | Blog

With the NBA and NHL playoffs upon us, I find my mind toggling back and forth between my love of sports and my love of business. On the one hand, sports are great because they’re filled with lessons that can be applied throughout your life. Just consider all of the sports clichés that we’re all taught from an early age:

  • Practice makes perfect
  • It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game
  • You can’t win ‘em all
  • Keep your eye on the ball
  • There’s no “I” in team

And the list goes on. In many ways, the competitive fire, the struggle through adversity, and the consistent work ethic that’s needed to be an athlete and perform at a high level is very much akin to the qualities needed to succeed in everyday life. Like a lot of important concepts, they’re extremely simple to understand, but also extremely difficult to put into practice. That’s one of the reasons sports are so compelling and relatable for so many people: we get to watch people live out these concepts in real time, right in front of our eyes.

On the other hand, if you talk to business leaders in any industry, they’ll often invoke many of the same concepts when describing their “sport”. That’s probably why a great business deal would be considered a “slam dunk” or “home run”, why a failed assignment often means that someone “dropped the ball”, why you might be grateful if a company executive “goes to bat for you”, and why it’s always a challenge when you’re “blindsided” by a decision. Clearly, there’s a ton of intersection between the sports world and business world, and it’s why I seem to always find myself drawn to both, looking for patterns and connections.

The Sport of Selling

Of course, in business there may be no greater analogy to sports than the one that defines the sales process. A great salesperson, much like a great athlete, is results-driven and often self-motivated. Also, like in sports, there is typically only room for two outcomes: a sale (a win) or a failure to sell (a loss). In this way, success is usually defined in black-and-white terms, and this tends to be the prism through which a salesperson views their own skill and success.

But the more I’ve been thinking about these two different worlds, the more I’ve realized that the parallels between them run even deeper than I imagined. In particular, a few common traits stand out to me:

Trait #1: Having a relentless focus

A truly great athlete is relentless when it comes to getting better. Just listen to stories about Tom Brady or the late Kobe Bryant and you can understand the level of dedication and focus these top performers bring to their craft. For them, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. The game is just a continuation of the behaviors they’ve honed over tens of thousands of hours in the gym or on the practice field. They’ve simply reached a point where these behaviors have become ingrained habits that manifest as instincts when it matters most.

The physical element aside, a top salesperson also needs to demonstrate this type of relentless focus. Whether it’s hammering the phones every day, taking a hands-on approach to perfecting a pitch deck, or shrugging off discouragement until the deal is finally made, great salespeople will continuously fine-tune their strategies and behaviors until their knowledge and approach become second-nature. Today this is more necessary than ever, as the sales process has transformed into a value-additive operation. If you’re not relentlessly seeking new ways to add value, you may find yourself relegated to the bench.

In other words, the modern-day sales warrior is a thought leader for their organization, an expert in strategy and a quick decision-maker. That first impression may be the last one, and great salespeople know how to succeed when the pressure is at its peak.

Trait #2: Learning from mistakes

The great college basketball coach John Wooden once said, “If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

Of course, the part that’s left out of this quote is that if you want to stay on the court, the ice, or on the field, you better be learning from the mistakes you do make. This is something that both great athletes and great salespeople are able to do. Losing an account can be a tough pill to swallow, especially if the reason for this is a failure on the part of you or your organization.

But the great salesperson won’t spend too much time dwelling on this failure. Instead, they’ll be looking for any lessons they can take away from it. They have a long-term view of their sales process, and they believe that the lessons they learn from past mistakes can be applied to future accounts so that these same mistakes can be avoided.

Trait #3: Following a game plan

For most great athletes, there’s a time—especially early in their careers—when they may feel like they need to do it all. Whether it’s overconfidence in their own skill, an inability to trust their teammates, or simply a lack of belief in the overall game plan, these top performers may decide at one point or another that their way is the best path to success.

This approach may work at first, but eventually the best athletes tend to acknowledge the importance of coaching, strategy, and game-planning, and by doing so, take their games to another level.

Similarly, a great salesperson may feel like the job of making a sale is on them, and them alone. In many cases, this is the chief source of pride: the individual win. This can be especially true for a long-tenured salesperson who’s both successful and very hands-on.

But it’s also important for these types of competitors to lean on their teams for support. If their organization has a sales strategy that’s tied to a marketing communications plan, trusting in these MarCom people is going to directly benefit them and their individual “stats”. The key is to take one’s own strengths and use them within the system and structure that’s been established by the organization.

Trait #4: Scouting your “opponent”

Finally, great athletes are meticulous about understanding who and what they’re up against. As sports become increasingly data-driven, these athletes are able to understand their opponents’ tendencies to the minutest of details. For example, former NBA player Shane Battier chronicled how the data helped him understand Kobe Bryant’s in-game habits so well that he was able to shave off 0.1 points for every one of his possessions. This might seem negligible, but this sort of attention to detail helped Battier remain one of the NBA’s better defenders for more than a decade.

While a great salesperson doesn’t technically have an “opponent”, they do need to “scout” and understand who their prospects are. This sort of “opposition” research should be ingrained in both the sales and demand generation departments. They need to take the time to understand who their potential clients really are, including their target audience, their go-to-market strategy, what their demographics look like, and what kind of rewards make sense for them. This willingness to do a deep dive, even before you have an initial call, is yet another factor I see that separates the so-so salespeople from the truly elite ones.

Conclusion

The parallels between sports and business are well-documented—it’s why in business we often talk about our “competitors”, and the reason that incentives tend to be so effective when it comes to sales. Great salespeople look at their job in much the same ways that great athletes do—whether it’s competing against others or themselves. Then again, since we were kids, we’ve always been taught that there’s no “I” in “team”, which might explain why we’re also starting to see a rise in team-based incentives.

In any event, if your salespeople have the same mindsets as athletes, maybe it makes sense to lean into the comparison. By considering all of the qualities and attributes that lead to success in sports, and creating systems and strategies that emphasize the honing of these skills, perhaps we can take a page out of our favorite team’s playbook and produce the next great wave of sales competitors.

Need more incentive insights? Check out these related articles.

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