3 Things Playing Sports Taught Me About Leadership

by | Jul 5, 2020

The following is adapted from F*ck the Glass Ceiling: Start at the Top (and Stay There) as a Feminine Entrepreneur.

“Go to the mound,” my coach said, pointing to me.

At the time, I was a chubby eleven-year-old used to being a benchwarmer who sometimes played outfielder. Today, though, our team’s only pitcher had decided not to show up for batting practice, and I was catapulted from the bench to the pitcher’s mound.

I could barely hold on to the ball and fumbled through batting practice in a discombobulated, uncertain state. It was a whole different vibe, and I remember thinking, This is where the action is.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the start of not just my pitching career, but my leadership training.

Foundationally, sports and business have the same goal: to win. As a leader, whether you’ve personally played sports or not, there’s a lot you can learn from the sports world when it comes to winning and working together as a team. Here are the top three lessons sports taught me.

#1: Change Your Thinking to Change Your Results    

Not long after that practice when I first stepped on the mound, our starting pitcher loaded the bases during an actual game, which resulted in me being placed in the pitcher’s circle. Parents were cheering, the other team was chanting against me, my coaches crossed their arms, and Mom and Dad looked on nervously. The next several batters, all of them athletic, were actually my schoolmates. I was fresh meat, and they were swinging for the fences.

It was there on the pitcher’s mound where I learned that on a moment-to-moment basis, my outcomes are completely influenced by my thoughts.

In high-pressure situations—common to both sports and business—you’ll typically be thrown into either asset thinking or liability thinking. Liability thinking is internal loser dialogue—the default or automatic patterns of thinking you pick up over life. With the bases loaded, my initial liability thinking was “I’m going to let my team down.” With that kind of thinking, of course I wouldn’t get the strikes I wanted.

To change your results, you need to override your liability thinking with asset thinking, like “I CAN do this” or “I WILL rise to the occasion.”

It sounds simple, but it works. If you’ve ever seen a losing team come back with a vengeance after a halftime pep talk, you’ve seen the power of asset thinking in action.

#2: Motivate the Team    

When I played softball, I could tell if our team was going to win or lose simply based on the way we walked onto the field before the game even started. With any team, the group’s overall mood is critical to success or failure, which means a leader’s key duty is shifting the mood as required.

Our limbic systems are open systems, meaning we entrain to each other’s moods. This means our mental makeup can be the difference between team cohesiveness and team sabotage. On my team, my catcher and I were the ones that got everyone out of their heads—whether we had to scream, motivate, cry, or otherwise enroll teammates into the idea that demoralizing our opponents would be more fun than slumping into a loss.

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to motivate your team. This requires learning to regulate your mindset, because your mood is contagious. If you’re feeling discouraged or upset, your team will pick up on it and won’t perform as well as a result.  

This is particularly important to do when you don’t have the clarity to “paint the corners that day.” (Painting the corners is a term used to describe when a pitcher finesses the ball into the corners of a strike zone, making the batter swing and miss.) When you’re feeling dull, you will benefit from enrolling your team to step up and support you even more. Even when you’re not at your best, you can inspire your team with a positive mindset.

#3: Practice the Fundamentals 

With the bases loaded and a full count on the batter, there’s nothing quite like winning a championship with a perfectly executed defensive triple play. The only way to do that is to master the basics.

In sports and business, it’s critical that you practice the fundamentals enough so that when the time comes, you are ready to execute on them. If you can’t do something under normal circumstances, you won’t be able to do it when the pressure is on and it really matters.

If you’ve ever trained for sports or some type of performance art, you know the difference between ordinary thinking and game-time (or show-time) thinking. When the proverbial sh*t hits the fan, as it will from time to time, you need to be able to rise to the occasion to create that on-demand, laser-like, game-winning focus—the same focus that separates the amateurs from the pros.

If you can’t, you’re going to get benched, or worse, the game will kick you out. In business, that translates to going out of business or voluntarily quitting. So practice the fundamentals—get used to winning over clients, hitting goals, and having coaching conversations with your team so that you can execute when it matters.

Get Your Head in the Game

Sports games are physical contests, but when you look at what separates the good athletes from the truly great, the determining factor is often mental. If you want to win, in sports or business, you need to get your head in the game. 

The same is true in business. By changing your thinking, motivating your team, and practicing the fundamentals, you give yourself a mental edge over your competitors. And that’s how you win.

For more advice on leadership, you can find F*ck the Glass Ceiling on Amazon.

Mandy Cavanaugh’s passion for leadership, entrepreneurship, and helping people thrive has fueled her roles as CEO, consultant, and facilitator. Her businesses have spanned global lodging logistics, land development, manufacturing, corporate leadership seminars, and turnaround consulting. Mandy succeeds in highly competitive environments by connecting each of her team members to their best future self. She holds various coaching certifications and has conducted seminars on high performance, authentic success, conscious language, imagination activation, conflict resolution, corporate soul retrieval, CEO-ship for start-ups, sales, team building, and wealth wisdom for women.