Let’s Call a “Time-Out” on Sports Analogies; It’s Bad for Well-Being (and Isn’t Great for Business, Either)

Is there any more common metaphor in business than sports? Everything from team dynamics to business development, from leadership qualities to success metrics, there has been a sports analogy trotted out and attached to it. While I am a big sports fan (I am a born and bred Ohio State Buckeye, after all), I am not a fan of the sports analogy. Why am I talking about this and what does it have to do with building cultures of resilience and well-being? The question answers itself: the most common sports analogies actually have little to do with building cultures of resilience and well-being. As it turns out, they have little to do with good business, either.

Seeing the business landscape like an athletic field is a mistake. Sports are zero-sum games based on scarcity. There is a winner and a loser (and in the rare instance of a tie, everyone is disappointed). Scarcity is the last thing an innovative and healthy culture should foster. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Bill Taylor explained that the most successful companies, “worry less about crushing the competition than about delighting and amazing their customers.” In sports, the laser focus is on the person on the other side of the net, pitch, field, or court. In business, or any other profession be it law, education, or healthcare, the energy and attention should be focused on the consumer, client, student, or patient.

What about then, the comparison between a leader/employees to coach/team? That must work, right? Both need to motivate, develop growth, and strategize. True; but the difference resides in the how. Taylor points out that athletes have incredibly short careers with loyalties that are even shorter. We saw a striking example of that this weekend. Colts quarterback, Andrew Luck, announced his retirement and was met by the “ugly, vicious sound” of boos from people who would have considered themselves fans just moments earlier. Sports commentator, Doug Gottlieb lambasted him for being the “ultimate millennial” for wanting quality (and likely quantity) of life over grinding down his body and mind for money. Coaches motivate for the immediate win and are often ruled by what Taylor called a “disposable mentality” where teams are made up of “mercenaries ruled by tyrants.” This is certainly not conducive to people feeling connected and psychologically safe, so why uphold it as a model for the workplace?

What psychologists and therapists know is that a scarcity mindset inhibits innovation, problem solving, and trust. It does not allow for risk, failure, or vulnerability (all the ingredients for to getting to abundance and bounty). It keeps people armored with their defenses up. It can make them suspicious and even hostile to change and growth. A coach screaming threats and demands down the bench might spur a player on in the short term. Off the field, however, people will eventually walk out the door. Or worse. You may or may not agree with me, but now (as they say)…the ball is in your court. Or something like that.

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