Business lessons from the world of sport

Apr 01, 2019
Tony Óg Regan ACA, a performance psychologist and former inter-county hurler, outlines the key lessons you can glean from top athletes and teams.

Develop the person first, employee second

Personal purpose

What difference do I want to make in the world? How do I add value to my relationships, community and organisation? Such questions are tough to answer, but purpose fuels our drive and energy and gives us clear direction and meaning in life. A purpose is your big ‘why’ and provides meaning about why you do what you do, why you make the choices you make and why you appreciate what you have.
When we have big decisions to make, be it personal or professional, asking yourself ‘Why I am doing this?’ is a great place to start.

Personal values

What is my internal compass for making decisions? How do I judge what is right or wrong? What behaviours are important to me? And how do I want to demonstrate them? The top sportspeople and leaders have a very strong sense of who they are and what they stand for. They are true to themselves, regardless of the situation. A value that is very strong in most leaders is honesty. They speak openly about what was done well and what wasn’t delivered on, and why. Sometimes we can get caught up in making plans, to-do lists and goals, but we shouldn’t overlook the question: who do I want to become?

Personal strengths and skills 

Awareness is vital in identifying your main skills and strengths. In sport, we look at individual and team goals and behaviours. What are the key performance indicators in your role and what are the key behaviours you strive to demonstrate every day to make these happen? It is important to have a clearly defined measure of success for people, as we thrive on making progress and working towards a goal. Self-reflection on our skills and behaviours is also critical while feedback from respected peers crystallises the learning.

Personal goals 

Having a goal and making progress towards goals is what fulfil is us; it stops us stagnating. We need to continually adapt and improve, but the challenge is to simultaneously meet the needs of clients, customers and the organisation. Setting out specific goals in our personal and professional life will mean that we consistently grow and add value. Many sportspeople perform on a Sunday, but they know the importance of preparation and practice to enable their best performance. As the Spartan saying goes, “Sweat more in practice, bleed less in battle”. What practices or routines do you have to improve your work performance?

Personal energy 

Self-awareness is critical for any leader. Knowing yourself, the impact your behaviours have on others and recognising the emotional moods/needs of others is a fundamental skill all top leaders possess. The energy you bring or don’t bring into the team affects the team’s performance and people’s trust in you. Leaders must expand and renew their four dimensions of energy – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – so that they can perform at their best and make the right decisions. There will always be challenges, but our attitude and how we respond to adversity will define our results.

Developing high-trust teams

The framework I use when building high-performance teams consists of these components:
  • Right compass – vision, values, strategy, goals, roles and responsibilities;
  • Right people – capability, character and capacity; and
  • Right cohesion – how we work together, social and task cohesion (i.e. team dynamics).

Team purpose

In Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he states that “he who has a strong enough ‘why’ can bear any ‘how’”. He survived eight concentration camps by focusing on his ‘why’ every day. He tapped into his humanity and by helping others, he redefined his purpose. So, what difference do you wish to create?

Team values

Core values are the fundamental principles or beliefs of a person or organisation; their views of what is important. Our values affect our decisions, goals and behaviours. They are standards that guide our judgements, actions and attitudes. These guiding principles dictate behaviour and can help people differentiate between what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Regardless of the situation or the scoreboard, the team should live these values, the non-negotiable behaviours we expect from each other. What we do when no one else is watching doesn’t guarantee a win, but it does give us a better chance of winning. A team that has a strong value system, in my experience, is more connected, committed and accountable.

Team goals

In working with elite sports teams, I break down the route to success into task-focused and training-focused goals during the week, and process-focused and performance-focused goals for match day. When we get these pillars right, the score takes care of itself. In business, we set daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly goals. What we can learn from sport is to review these more regularly. When I played for Galway, every Monday we reviewed our key performance indicators against our targets. We identified what we did well, and we were honest when we underperformed and took responsibility in practice to improve on this. In business, however, we sometimes do only yearly reviews with staff. It has been shown that feedback improves performance by up to 50%, so why not tell your staff more often what you appreciate about them, what they can do more of and why?

Team cohesion

A key element of successful teams is strong, honest and trusting relationships among team members. When an individual comes under pressure, he or she relies heavily on teammates to support, encourage or challenge him or her to higher effort and performance. The best teams don’t leave each other isolated at any stage; they are aware when someone is down or struggling. They recognise that when someone is struggling, the team struggles. When someone is frustrated, the team is frustrated. Creating an environment where people feel valued, trusted, connected and respected is how we will get the best out of each other. Leaders must strive to make people feel this way. High-trust teams are comfortable displaying their fears and vulnerabilities; they aren’t concerned about the judgement of others. They communicate openly and positively challenge each other to do better. Above all, they care for the people they work with.

Honesty and accountability

In sports teams, we are constantly under the microscope. 82,000 people attend the All-Ireland final each year with millions of viewers worldwide. After each game, we review our performance on video. If you were videoed for a week in work, what would people see? Would you be proud of the effort you put in, how you communicated with colleagues, and the skills and behaviours you demonstrated? Sports stars are not afraid to ask hard questions of themselves and their teammates. When we underperformed, we got help from our coaches to improve our skill deficit. Does your organisation provide adequate coaching to staff if there is a skills deficit?


Developing individuals and teams requires a holistic approach. As individuals, it is important to identify key strengths, skills and development areas. It is not enough to be good technically; that is only 20% of your role. The 80% that we must continue to review and develop is our people skills, learning and behaviours. Having a strong culture of feedback in your organisation is vital to raise responsibility in people. Building high-performance teams takes effort but by putting the key pillars in place (right coordinates, right people and right team dynamics), you can create repeatable sustained performance and success year-on-year.
Tony Óg Regan ACA is a performance psychologist and has played at the highest sporting levels with the Galway senior hurlers.