Six lessons from football—even if you can’t stand sports analogies

Take some tips from the gridiron to strengthen your business

There are a lot of people who like to knock football.

I’m married to one. She considers the game to be dangerous, violent, and downright inane. If you listen to her describe it, it’s for big stupid brutes who like to bash into each other.

The news about deflated balls and inflated salaries only adds to her contempt, as do recent reports about head injuries. She blames a few concussions on the field for significantly lowering the IQ of her husband (that’d be me) and vows to block attempts by her son to sign up for tackle football.

Of course, when the Super Bowl kicks off, she’ll join the parties, laugh at the new commercial spots, and even admit to admiring views of the behinds of the tight ends.

And that’s the point. Even for those who voice their distain for football and find sports analogies corny and overused, there remains a magnetic appeal to what is the undisputed and quintessential American sport.

As we kick off football season, I’d like to argue that the game has more relevance to the business world, especially startups, than any other sport. Most sports demand teamwork, commitment, endurance, and a rah-rah attitude, but football goes far beyond that.

“We’re playing hockey, not golf,” my longtime friend George Conrades once reminded me. He’s a former top exec at IBM and BBN and the first CEO of Akamai Technologies, where he was my client. It’s a phrase I’ve borrowed a lot over the years, for understandable reasons.

Fast moving, constantly changing, and goal-oriented, hockey sounds very much like starting a new company. And it’s the polar opposite of the privileged, pondering, and glacially slow pace of the golf links. For that reason, hockey earns a very respectable second place in its applicability to business.

But football outscores hockey in several unique ways. In my playbook, here are a couple of lessons that you can apply to your new business.

Sports metaphors in business

1. Focus on fundamentals. Blocking and tackling are to football what revenue and expenses are to business. It’s fun to get creative and call fancy plays, but at the end of the day, it comes down to executing two clear-cut but hard-to-achieve fundamentals.

2. Seek the contact. Being risk-averse, passive aggressive, and avoiding conflict—these are not good characteristics to have when you’re building a business. Football teaches you to seek the contact, butting heads if necessary to make it happen. Conversely, football also teaches you to be elusive, and make others miss out. That means hitting the hole hard and running over, around, and in between would-be tacklers who are the competitors in your field.

3. Size people up. “Turn around!” barked the head football coach at Beverly Hills High School on my first day of practice. As we arranged ourselves horizontally in the end zone, he was checking out which of us had the solid physiques to be linemen. While everyone wants to be the star who makes the game-winning touchdown, coach Bill Stansbury knew instinctively that a leader needs to put people in their proper position that matches their size and abilities rather than their dreams and egos.

4. Always make adjustments. I remember hearing Pat Haden, athletic director at the University of Southern California, saying that football is a game of adjustments. Yes, there is strategy involved, but coaches have to anticipate that things will go wrong. That’s when they have the players huddle up and try to get it right.

5. Operate under any conditions. From hot and humid summer afternoons to ending the season in a snowstorm, football is played under any and all conditions. It teaches us that we will often be at the mercy of elements that we cannot control.

6. Don’t overthink things. “I thought I was supposed to block so-and-so,” a teammate who messed up a play explained to Coach Stansbury. “That’s the problem, you think too much,” the coach shouted back. Just react, attack, and rely on gut instinct.

More than three decades after I played my last game, I still regret walking off the college field, suddenly quitting after I had transferred to a Division III school because I wasn’t good enough to play at the University of California.

I’m still ashamed of my decision. I chalk it up to immaturity, and feel compelled to write another apology to those who helped me get into a school where I wasn’t a shoo-in.

But in another way, I’m glad I relied on my gut instincts. Finishing up at UCLA gave me precious time with my father, who came down with a terminal illness several years later. It also led to a job working for my local member of Congress and pursuing my master’s degree at Columbia.

I’m grateful to football for instilling in me a drive to hit fear head-on, a commitment to excellence, and a reckless abandon—all skills a former linebacker coach used to demand from us. These qualities have been game changers for me, and for countless others, in business. And the good news is that they are yours for the taking, whether you played the game or not.

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