5 Ways to Run Your Business Like an Elite Athlete and Push Through Tough Times

Learn the mindset techniques professional athletes use to maintain peak performance so you can scale your business.

By Brianna Battles

September 13, 2022

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

With inflation and interest rates on the rise, announcements of mass company-wide layoffs and ongoing uncertainty around supply chain issues, many small business owners wonder how to navigate the turmoil, stay mentally strong for their teams and continue to scale amidst the volatility.

For one, it can be lonely as an entrepreneur. A 2015 study by researcher Dr. Michael Freeman found that 72% of entrepreneurs have a mental health history; a 2018 study by Cigna of 20,000 individuals found that “56% reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them are not necessarily with them.” Couple that with a global pandemic and social distancing amidst growing widespread social tensions, entrepreneurs need to dig deep to ensure they maintain peak performance and high-end leadership for the people they serve.

Coming from my background, raised by a single mom and the first person in my family to graduate from college (with a degree in kinesiology), I didn’t have extensive business training or connections to fall back on when I launched my company. In fact, I never realized it was even an option for me. Sports provided structure, commitment, experiences and connections that helped facilitate building a business from the ground up

As a lifelong athlete and coach who currently coaches pregnant and postpartum professional athletes, Olympians and even a UFC fighter, I realized there are distinct characteristics to how athletes think and approach problem solving, which I call “athlete brain.”

High-level athletes and coaches know how to leverage their mindset, resilience, output and team to work for and with them toward the desired outcome. This mindset continually benefits my business growth and ensures we maintain strong team culture, vision and distinction. Consider these five ways mentally strong elite athletes leverage their competitiveness that will benefit your business during these times.

Related: How to Harness the Athlete’s Mindset for Business Success

1. Compete with yourself

Aim to be the best at what you do, and don’t compare or focus on anyone else. I’ve taken my competitiveness and desire to become a better, more versatile athlete into creating an impactful, team-based business and global movement. When you’re an athlete, you can apply being highly motivated to your business success.

Understand that your business has so much potential, and aim to maximize this unique potential separate from anyone or anything else. Self-awareness and understanding your unique talents, skills and role within the business will help you trailblaze on an individual level, which will carry over to how your overall business operates. Your individual growth influences business growth.

2. Be process-driven

It may sound counterintuitive, but don’t just aim for a specific result. In business, it is easy to become hyper-focused on maximizing the ROI, having a successful launch and hitting your markers or KPIs. Instead, zoom out and analyze the entirety of the process.

What went well? What could be improved? Is this sustainable? If it’s not sustainable, it will not work; you may hit your KPIs, but your team will get burned out. Similar to an athletic team, to have a successful business, all players need to perform at a sustained optimum, not just one good player grinding to the goal. Success is not just outcome-dependent — the process also determines true success.

Related: 7 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Elite Athletes

3. Integrate the identity

In work and family, integrate your business so that it becomes such a part of who you are that it isn’t about work-life balance. For me, it’s less about balance and more about juggling and finding an improved rhythm over time. When you juggle vs. balance, business becomes a natural extension of who you are and what you enjoy in conjunction with everything else that is important to you.

Similar to being a professional athlete, it is a core part of your identity because of how you’ve shaped yourself over time. If I’m on an airplane en route to vacation with my family, I can draft content or an email. “Athlete brain” in business is about our work complementing our lifestyle and enjoyment, not just consuming our life to the point of it becoming a burden.

4. Play the long game

Just like being an athlete, in business, you have to play for the short-term wins with the long-term vision in mind. Being in it to win it isn’t about flash in the pan. It’s about metric-driven success, creating long-term team culture both within the business and community, and cultivating sustainable, industry-changing potential that your business can makeacross any field.

Related: Entrepreneurs Need to Train Like Elite Athletes, According to a Former Pro Badminton Player

5. Stay adaptable

Like in sports and like playing on a team, sometimes you have to be adaptive to change the game plan, change your role or modify the way you do things. We’ve all been tested the last couple of years with how we do things, which challenged many business owners. It also brought out the best in a lot of people, too.High-performing business owners can think like an athlete by cultivating the skill of adaptability moving forward. Sometimes you have to have a totally different game plan at halftime, reassess and know that failure and setbacks act as feedback.

The habits and lifestyle of an athlete are transferable to how we can lead as business owners. By applying these five principles, entrepreneurs can learn to compete with themselves, eliminating the distractions that often distract from their work. They can focus on process-driven metrics — not just set outcomes — and learn to integrate their work into their lifestyle. By playing the long game in business, we can avoid burnout and excess pressure to find success because we learn to be adaptable through the process. You don’t have to be a high-level athlete to run your business like one. These skills are transferable to how we manage ourselves, our business and our lifestyle.

My CEO Peer Advisory Group in Austin Texas will have a couple of openings in December due to members selling their businesses. One received an offer of 8x EBITA. Give me a call if the timing is right for you to be considered for one of our openings.

Ed Stillman

Published by edstillman

I grew up in Carlsbad, north San Diego County, lost my dad as a teenager, went into the USAF for four years and hired on with 3M in 1969. Received my AA from Santa Barbara City College, BA and Masters from Redlands University and after 33 plus years, I retired from 3M in 2002. As I look back on my life, I have been creating myself and developing my skill sets to be a business coach and a Vistage Chair. I am president of SEOT, a "personal improvement" consulting firm spending most of my time working with Central Texas executives running small to medium size for-profit companies who are focusing on improving their profitability greater than their competition. My area of interest is assisting senior executives in creating a better balance between business commitments and personal relationships. I also facilatate three leadership labs each consisting of a dozen owners, presidents and CEOs. We meet monthly both in a group setting as well as in a 1-to-1 coaching session. Our focus is to sharpen each others' skills in becoming better leaders, making better decisions and taking ourselves and companies to that next level. Who are we? My members are experienced top executives who recognize that they don’t have all the answers and who actively seek the company of successful peers—both to give and receive insights and ideas. My members mine the 200 plus years of chief executive experience that comes together in our monthly meetings and members are eager to offer their own experience and insights in the process. As a group, we spend our time exploring topics members can't discuss anywhere else. My members have many other places where they can engage in idle, "cocktail party" chatter. Our mission is to provide the setting for discussing the "undiscussable." Where or who can you go to for confidential, honest feedback to assist you in minimizing your personal "Worry List"?