Sport is NOT The Same as Business

Published on

April 13, 2023

Written by

Alison Humphries


OK, I’m calling it…


Sport is NOT business, and business is NOT sport.


In common with many, I have spent hours at conferences listening to elite athletes talk about the secrets of their success. And I’ve listened to a fair few audiobooks and podcasts as well.


The recruiter and business owner audience always leave smiling, even energised. These people are celebrities, after all, and their presentations are often well-honed. They have wheeled out their story of the great Olympics race or row to different audiences many, many times.


Of course, these people are winners. The idea is that if you listen to their story, you can be too.


But that does not make them experts at leading businesses. Here are just 3 ways that their experience is fundamentally different to yours:

  1. A recruitment business leader does not have an entire team of experienced professionals whose job it is to make you the best that you can be.
    In fact, it’s probably the other way around.  The people you employ will be looking to you to develop them.
  2. Business does not have the “single event” focus that elite sport does. For athletes, you can build your training for the Olympics, or the World Cup, for example. But if you’re running a business, you need to be on your game every day. For your customers and for your team. If your business isn’t sustainable, if you aren’t building for next year, you haven’t really got a business.
  3. The race or competition is defined. The criteria for sport is to be the fastest/throw the furthest/score the highest. Yes, the conditions and competitors may change how that’s done, but it doesn’t change mid-event.


By contrast, in business, it’s not always clear what the criteria are – at least not without the benefit of hindsight.  And the criteria by which you become, say, the “market leader” is different for your clients, candidates and colleagues, as well as awards organisations. Just consider how your sales team may rate themselves highly in a recruitment business where the Company Accountant thinks the business is poor.

  • Athletes do not have to consider customers in the same sense at all. They do not have to find clients and sell a product at a competitive price point, Sure, they need sponsorship. But that is attracted by association with what they do, not a need for their services. 


Very simply, Nike doesn’t need Cristiano Ronaldo because it needs a professional footballer. It needs a famous, successful person to wear its goods so that brand awareness is enhanced.  By contrast, a recruitment business owner has to sell its recruitment services. And that means finding a demand, efficient ways of meeting that demand and finding an acceptable price point where there are plenty of other options.


Now, please don’t write to me to tell me that you believe in only hiring elite athletes into your recruitment business. Because if you do, you are looking at the CV, not the driving motivations (like self-discipline, a drive for self-development, high fluid intelligence, problem-solving skills) and those can be found in people without any sporting ambition.

I have also seen plenty of people benefit by having discipline, resilience and listening to well-informed, external advice (those are some examples of what does go for both elite athletes and recruitment business leaders).

But also, please don’t take it from a retired athlete that if you do what they did, you too will be a winner. There’s a lot more to building a successful (recruitment) business than that. And many more moving parts in your market.

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