Sports and entrepreneurship are about achievement, team spirit and persistence – and for both, pitches are essential.
It only takes one word to show that sports and entrepreneurship are cut from the same cloth: the pitch. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a pitch is “an area painted with lines for playing particular sports”, “a throw in a baseball game”, “a place in a public area where a person regularly sells goods or performs”, and “a speech or act that attempts to persuade someone to buy or do something”. Sports and entrepreneurship seem to be two sides of the same coin.
As a writer and entrepreneurship researcher, discovering a new angle to pitching and entrepreneurship fascinates me.
In that spirit I spoke with experts and alumni from ESCP Business School about what entrepreneurs and athletes have in common and what they might learn from each other.
Learning from failure
Magali Rousseau is an ESCP alumna and graduated from the Master in Management with a specialisation in entrepreneurship (Option-E) in 2017. She works as a marketing analyst at PMR, is an olympic swimmer, multiple world champion in surf lifesaving as well as a world record holder, and a yoga teacher.
“The best advice is to persevere in difficult times,” she told me. “In high-level sport, we face failures or things that do not go as planned. The most important thing is not to get discouraged and to learn from these situations in order to move forward. It is actually often in the most difficult situations that you achieve the most significant progress. This is also applicable to entrepreneurship.”
From sport to entrepreneurship, persistence and a willingness to grow and learn seem to be the key to success. Additionally, Magali highlighted the importance of getting started:
Even if you work hard you are not sure to succeed, but if you don’t work and don’t throw yourself into cold water, you are sure not to succeed!
Trusting your team
Next, I spoke to Sönke Mestwerdt, who works as a manager for the Blue Factory, ESCP’s incubator, on startup support and startup relations, and is a PhD Student at the Jean-Baptiste Say Institute for Entrepreneurship.
We talked about pitching – an essential skill for aspiring entrepreneurs, and one that the Blue Factory trains students in. It is a sports-like craft: Speakers have to perform under pressure, prove mental strength, learn from failure, and be goal-oriented in order to convince their audience.
Sönke also made a point that winning is always a team effort, even if it’s an individual on stage or on the pitch.
“Not only in team sports, like football, basketball or volleyball, are athletes dependent on others, but also in tennis, golf, running and so on. Behind every athlete is a team of people, coaches, doctors, family or friends who make it possible for them to succeed,” he explained. “In businesses like startups, it is the same, whether it’s your co-founder, intern or your family supporting you in your work. You are always stronger in a team and no great success is based on one individual alone, there are always people in the background who support and enable you along the way.”
Behind every athlete is a team of people, like coaches, doctors, family or friends who make it possible for them to succeed. In businesses like startups, it is the same.
Achieving your goals
Finally, I discussed sports and entrepreneurship with Nicolas Manissier, an ESCP alumnus and the acquisitions director as well as head of Ballon d’Or at L’Équipe. He talked to me about ten behaviors that he took away from working with athletes and in sports management:
- Set objectives for yourself, and do anything you can to reach them.
- Don’t give up, or you are certain to lose.
- If you don’t perform, you’ll be out.
- Push as hard as you can to win.
- Be tough on yourself to improve.
- Be competitive, because you can always do better.
- Invent new ways and be creative, so that you can win.
- Accept to win ugly, sometimes.
- Trust your teammates, because if they score the goal, you will win as well.
- And of course, from time to time, have fun, enjoy your day at work, because even if you suffer, you’ve chosen to be there and love what you do.
This sounds like a good plan for being a successful entrepreneur, right? Yes and no.
Nicolas warns that the skills that might be necessary for excellent performance on match day are very different from the ones that make managing a team successful and sustainable in the long run.
“Managing a company or a team using the set of values of competitive sport is very enticing. But it should be questioned as well, as it doesn’t necessarily fit. People don’t always want to suffer for ages for a single moment of glory… It’s not for everybody,” he expressed.
“But sport values are, in my view, extremely useful to run certain types of projects, in particular, when it comes to product development or organising events. Where there is a clear goal to achieve with a target date and a target result.” In short, Nicolas believes entrepreneurs need to be able to move in and out of athlete-mode.
Now, what does all of this mean for your next pitch?
Try to approach it like an athlete: Get out and apply for the prize money, set a goal, be persistent, be willing to learn from failed attempts, practice, perform, and rely on your team. The pitch can teach you a lot about pitching.
At the same time, don’t forget that entrepreneurship is more than winning a pitching competition. Be ready to switch between being an athlete and a co-creator, who doesn’t look at others as contestants, but potential team mates.
Someone who doesn’t just look at the pitch as a space for competition, but as a playground.