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The intersection between sport and work: How organisations can leverage sport to unlock potential

Written by Editor

April 9, 2024

By Jessica Rossouw, Social Media Manager and Decusatio 

As a young professional whose early career was influenced by remote work brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, I often think about the dynamic between companies and their staff. 

On one hand you will have businesses being disappointed about the work ethic and engagement of younger staff and on the other, you will have talented young people leaving organisations because of friction with management. 

As somebody who plays hockey, I am fascinated by the dynamics and culture of winning sports teams. Being a young hockey-playing-professional I believe that both parties could learn from applying some key sports principles to reduce this friction. Young professionals can approach their career in the same way they approach competitive sport and businesses can gamify their working environment to retain talent. 

If individuals and organisations are serious about unlocking potential, then there are some cultural shifts which can be easily embraced. 


Show us the score, explain the rules 

South African rugby made a habit of winning by one point in 2023 and while it may not have been good for our mental state, it was gripping and kept everybody glued to the outcome. Whether we were defending our lead or chasing down the opposition we all knew exactly what had to be done to get the win. 

While businesses may not always be able to show their financial information, they can utilise dashboards with well-defined key performance indicators (KPIs) to show how the company is tracking against key metrics. In the same way that I know that a team will statistically do better if they get more short-corners in hockey, staff will be able to do better if they know where to focus their attention.

Intersection between sport and work - Office

Thrill of healthy competition 

One of the criticisms I often hear about our generation is that we were brought up at a time when everybody was a winner and participation often trumped performance. There is probably some merit to that. 

Sport thrives on competition: pushing athletes to their limits, improving continuously and achieving excellence. Surely, these are the same things that an organisation needs to be competitive in the market?  

Competition can promote innovation, personal growth and organisational success when harnessed positively. Sport culture elements can be incorporated into the workplace to boost motivation, encourage continuous learning and unlock untapped potential.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, had a saying: “A-players attract A-players. B-players attract C-players.” 

While our generation may wish to drive inclusivity, this doesn’t mean we don’t want to be recognised for standout performances. Not everybody has to be a winner, but we acknowledge that winners attract winners and that we collectively want to aim at something. 


The power of the team 

The subject of remote work is a contentious one and it draws really interesting perspectives from both staff and businesses, but unless you can find a happy medium, you will not be able to leverage the multiplier-effect of a powerful team.  

Whether it is hockey, rugby, football or any other team sport – very few top teams thrive on the back of individual performances for any sustained period of time. You can train as much as you like in a gym to get your individual fitness levels up, but unless you spend time with your teammates the team won’t succeed.

The importance of teamwork and collaboration is emphasised in both work and sport. Developing a positive work culture that values cooperation, open communication and collective problem-solving is essential for high-performance teams. 

Teamwork and productivity can be enhanced in the workplace by using experiences gained from sports, such as trust, resilience and shared goals.

The intersection between work and sport - Hockey players

Resilience & perseverance

Individuals must exhibit resilience and perseverance when faced with challenges and setbacks in both work and sport. 

As athletes, we learn to bounce back from defeat, be adaptable to changes in circumstances, and persevere in our pursuit of victory. 

It is common for employees to face obstacles, tight deadlines and failures in the workplace. Even in demanding work environments, individuals can use the resilience they learn through sports to overcome setbacks, maintain a positive mindset and still strive for success.


Work-life balance 

Athletes understand how crucial rest, recovery and maintaining overall well-being are to excellence. 

Similarly, work cultures are gradually beginning to acknowledge the value of work-life balance, understanding that having time for self-care and personal pursuits enhances employee productivity and satisfaction. By incorporating elements from sport culture into the workplace, such as physical activity, team sports, or wellness programmes, employers can improve employee well-being, reduce employee stress and enhance work-life balance.

As a young professional, embracing the symbiotic relationship between work and sport culture can significantly contribute to your personal and professional growth. By transferring skills from sport culture, such as teamwork, competition and resilience to the workplace; you can enhance your performance, build strong professional relationships and seize opportunities for advancement. Balancing the demands of work and personal life, while incorporating elements of sport culture into your routine, allows you to thrive in both domains. 

Embrace the valuable lessons from sport culture and let them fuel your success as you navigate the dynamic landscape of being a young professional. By combining the best of both worlds, individuals and organisations can achieve remarkable results, foster employee well-being and drive collective success.

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