10 Things I Learned From Being A World Class Athlete

by Steven van Groningen on 14 December, 2012

Many years ago I was a successful athlete. I participated in two World Championships and the 1984 Olympic Games. Today I am a successful CEO. You can find more about me here.

Sometimes I am asked about parallels between sport and business so I decided to draw up this list of 10 things I learned from being a successful athlete that help me now to be successful in other fields as well.

1. The Importance Of Small Steps

Sometimes there are breakthroughs, in sports or business. But most of the time the key to success is to make many small improvements that together will contribute a little bit. Many times you’ll not be able to find the one thing that improves your time by a significant amount, say 10 seconds, but you might find ten small things that each shave off 1 second. In too many cases I see people looking for big things, silver bullets. Cutting 10% of your costs is not about making one big cut but finding many smaller ones. Most products become better through constant improvement. Stimulating the economy is not about one big measure but the willingness to take many small steps make a difference together.

Too often do I hear something to the tune of “that doesn’t make any difference” or “that doesn’t really help”. It does. If you don’t believe it, try it. You might even find something big. When you are looking for something big, you are not interested in the small things and you might overlook them. When you are looking for something small, you are also interested in the big ones. It is an attitude that will make that difference count towards your own improvement..

2. Actively Seek Feedback

Top athletes spend incredible amounts of time on training. They do this to improve, to get better, to perfect their performance. They have specialists to help them train; coaches. So, what does an athlete want to hear from his coach when he is training hard and long? He wants to hear what to try out, to change to go faster, what to do to improve.

Now let’s look at what happens at work. Here we also see people spending long hours and trying to get more work done in less time, to improve. But most people are not actively seeking feedback. Worse, when someone suggests that something can be improved, they become very defensive. Of course criticism isn’t always right or justified, but it should at least lead to some debate and not denial.

Be open to feedback; actively try to get feedback about how you are performing. Not only from your bosses but also from the people that are reporting to you. A good manager will offer feedback and support to his team members. If he or she doesn’t do this, go and ask for it. If you are putting in long hours and you are ambitious then be open to feedback, to positive criticism. By shutting yourself off from criticism you are not going to improve. We all need to deal with insecurity in life, asking for feedback or accepting criticism is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength.

3. The Goal Is To Improve, Winning Is The Result

Most successful athletes love what they are doing; they love the game, their sports. When you are passionate and love what you are doing, you are constantly looking for ways to get better at it. Once you are good enough, you start winning. Of course races are part of the sport and they show how you are progressing. You don’t perform in a vacuum. You constantly measure yourself against your competitors, like in business. I have won races with what I felt to be a mediocre performance. I have also lost races with a perfect performance.

What gives more satisfaction? It is up to the individual, but I am convinced that many athletes are successful because they are passionate about what they do and they try to be the best they can. When constant improvement is their goal, winning can only be the logical result.

The same goes for other fields of activity. If you love what your doing, if you are passionate about your work, you will improve and be more successful.

If a bank wants to be successful (by increasing market share and/or profit to name the usual indicators), it should try to become a better bank. If you are a better bank, market share and profit will follow as a logical consequence. Focusing on winning all the time (or on constantly increasing market share as a scope in itself) might bring you some success, but that doesn’t mean you are a good bank nor that you will keep this position for too long.

The goal is to become better, the result is winning.

4. Try Something Different

Do things because you believe in them, not because others are doing them. You can copy the best, follow the leader and there is undoubtedly a lot to learn from observing successful competitors, but doing what they do is not enough. You need to try something different as well. If you do exactly the same you will become exactly the same, not better. Also, by the time you are done copying what others are doing, they have already moved on to the next level.

Think for yourself. This theory also applies in business. If you want to be successful you have to be both different and right about something at the same time. As we have seen in banking, doing the same and being wrong about it doesn’t bring you success. There is no satisfaction in losing lots of money because you were wrong but being happy because someone else lost more.

5. If You Are Stronger, Pull Harder

In team sports, as in daily life, as in a company, the workload is not always distributed evenly. Over time you’ll find yourself in situations in which you are one of the weaker or the stronger members of the team. When you are weaker, try to do your very best in order to help the team to be successful. You wouldn’t want the team to lose because of you. When you are stronger, accept that you have to do more than the weaker members. It is better for the team and what it is better for the team is better for you. To paraphrase what a famous US president once said: “Don’t ask what the team can do for you, ask what you can do for the team.”

6. Team

In a team you need team players, not a group of prima donnas. Getting the best individuals together doesn’t guarantee the best result. If the idea is that you perform together, you need players that work together, sense each other and complement each other. The best individual skills are not enough. In business as well, the challenge is to build high performance teams. Don’t be afraid to replace a talented member, with a good individual performance but the wrong team values. Also, don’t be surprised when you find out that some people, not the best in terms of individual skills, make almost every teams they are part of performing better. We, rowers, used to call them “boat movers”.

You need to identify them and take good care of them. A less talented team that works well together is better than any group of highly skilled individuals.

7. Basketball Players Are Tall

I loved sports and I’ve tried a lot of them; in some I did good in some I did poor but regardless, it was fun. If you want to be successful, find a sport that suits you. If you are not tall, basketball is probably not the sport for you. Rowing was the sport for me, but  as said, I tried others as well.

Same in business; understand what you are good at, understand what you like and are passionate about. Being passionate doesn’t guarantee success, but success without passion is difficult to imagine. If you don’t like it, move on, even if this is not in line with the plans and ideas of others. I always felt sorry for some of the less talented rowers at my club that simply didn’t have the physical capabilities to reach the top but kept trying because it was expected of them. The same is valid when it comes to career choices. Don’t be afraid to try things out when you are young. One of the most exciting things is to discover what you are good at in life. If it doesn’t work, move on.

8. Strong Points And Weak Points

Everyone has strong and weak points. This does not go only for individuals but also for organizations. It is important to understand what your strong and weak points are. Companies use the SWOT analysis for this.

Of course it is a good idea to exploit your strong points and to make sure these remain a competitive advantage. At the same time I have seen the tendency among athletes to spend more time and effort on further developing an already strong individual ability when it would have been better to spend more effort on a weaker side. It may not always be the most rewarding work, but it might actually make a bigger difference. You should at least be aware of this tendency and decide for yourself if you really want to be a super specialist.

9. Results Are More Rewarding If You Play By The Rules

The perfect execution of something complicated, getting the results that are difficult to obtain, being successful – all these aspects gain the respect and admiration of others. But these results are only valuable if they are obtained in an honest correct way.

Cheating, bending the rules etc is not fair play.

I don’t want to lose to someone who is cheating instead I’d rather lose than cheat myself. I also don’t like to win because of fate or bad luck of a competitor. In business it is the same. I take great pride from the fact that we can run a bank with the right ethical values. I wrote about this in my article about corruption (link). (By no means do I want to imply that competitors are successful because they are unethical) There is a difference between legal and ethical. There are practices that are legal but not ethical.

From time to time I hear about clearly unethical practices in the banking sector. For example see this post. Of course it is frustrating when you lose business because a competitor turns to this sort of practices. I tell my staff you should feel sorry for competitors that cannot take the lead ahead of you by playing straight.

10. You Can Learn More From Losing Than From Winning.

When you lose a race you analyze what happened, what could have been done differently, what you should work on for the next period etc.

When you win, the tendency is to be pleased with yourself; you celebrate and attribute the success to your own capabilities. Look at the comments after a race or a game, in many cases a team won because they were good but they lost because of the referee, the sun, the wind, the food, the field, whatever.

It’s no different in business. If you have good results – that is, better than your competitors – ask yourself the question why. Is it really because you are better at something or because are you simply risking more than others. As we have seen, risks might materialize and lead to losses later.

11. One Thing I learned In Business

One thing is different in business than in sports. In sports, when you are first at the finish, that means you won. In business things are not always that clear. There have been times that I thought I was “first at the finish line” only to find there someone who wasn’t even in the race claimed the medal and the flowers.

This is unpleasant. Of course the environment and the rules in business aren’t as strictly defined as they are in sports and this creates the possibility of toying with the system. Some are good at this but don’t worry; in time people find out who the real contributors are.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex December 17, 2012 at 13:29

Very inspiring post! Value added for me. Thanks :)


Silviu December 17, 2012 at 17:31

Thanks Steven! Not only for this post, but also for all blog!


Dragos Roua December 18, 2012 at 19:11

Thanks, Steven!

I always knew you are a top performer in sports and business, but now I’m puzzled by how far you went in terms of blogging. It is a very rewarding experience, for me.

Keep those articles coming. You are making a difference. :)


SvG December 18, 2012 at 21:57

Thank you Dragos, for both your help, inspiration and now encouragement…


Victor Geus December 18, 2012 at 21:24

Steven, briljant advies. I will share this with my team ahead of the upcoming holidays. With proper reference to the author of course! Inspirational thoughts and perspectives to consider for all when reflecting on a busy year. Thank you for sharing! Merry Christmas.


SvG December 18, 2012 at 22:03

Thanks Victor, please feel free to share. I enjoyed writing it and hope others will find something of interest in it.
Merry Christmas!


Mirella Dascalu December 18, 2012 at 22:22

Thank you !!! Is very true …


Gabriel Pioaru December 18, 2012 at 23:26

Thank you Steven for your thoughts!!!


Cornelia December 19, 2012 at 00:31

Thanks a lot for this analogy and for sharing this thoughts! Good luck also in sport and business!
Merry Christmas!


Pierre Bortnowski December 27, 2012 at 23:13

Great article. It rings lots of bells, having been a rower myself :-) To bad you didn’t post it two years ago when we started our PRISPA project (a solar house build by students for an international competition), I could have used all these precious advices.
I guess I’ll have to start another project to try and implement them!


Liviu Achim December 27, 2012 at 23:53

One of the best inspiring article I’ve read. Thank you Mr van Groeningen for this article. I think that sport and business runs on the same principles and that’s why I think sport it is the best way to improving us both as individuals and business.


irina February 17, 2013 at 20:05

Thank you, Mr. van Groeningen


Istvan Preda June 1, 2013 at 10:54

Hi Steven, Inspiring article. I remember when we first met, 13 yrs ago, when you just limped into the ABN CEO’s office after the Budapest marathon. I am impressed that as a busy CEO, you find time for fasting, ironmen and blogging. I will be looking out for new posts.


Anca December 9, 2013 at 17:05

Well said and very wise: If You Are Stronger, Pull Harder!


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