Five Things Desk Jockeys Can Learn From Pro Athletes

Our jobs and skills pro athletes use have a remarkable amount in common—here's how to gain a competitive edge

When Dirk Nowitzki was a gangly teenager, his coach asked him to decide: stay in Germany or go to the NBA. Nowitzki came to the U.S. and turned pro, winning the 2011 NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks.

I’m no Dirk Nowitzki, but I did play professional basketball in Hungary. And there are five lessons I learned from turning pro—as an athlete and a businessperson.

1. Watch your game film.

Coaches make their teams review game films to see which parts of their offense, defense or technique need work. Seeing this stuff on film makes it real. It helps teams and players overcome blind spots and get better.

At work, a lot of professionals aren’t willing to look at their game film. They don’t want to see where they could improve; they’re deaf to others’ suggestions to raise their game.

That’s not being a pro; that’s being obtuse. Pros are relentless about finding the parts of their game that need work.

2. Warm up.

In pro sports, games start in a routinized way. Some running. Some stretching. These “warm-ups” are designed to prepare athletes’ minds and bodies for the game ahead.

In business, few professionals have a warm-up. They may start with a to-do list, but when they get to the office, they chat with coworkers or check e-mail. Before they know it, half the day is gone and they’ve got nothing to show for it.

Steven Pressfield, author of Do the Work and The Legend of Bagger Vance has a daily ritual to help him overcome resistance and get writing: he reads a compelling poem about the importance of getting to work, dons a special necklace and sits down to crank out twenty pages. Every day.

Those are real results.

What’s your warm-up?

3. Practice.

By the time I started playing professional basketball, I’d shot 20,000 free throws. I was committed and I practiced ... a lot.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at anything. Professionals become pros because they practice. They’re committed.

If you want to be a capital-P professional, you need to practice your craft. You can’t read about being great at sales; you have to sell. And you must persist.

Journalist Ira Glass of This American Life tells would-be producers: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

4. Recruit great passers.

Geno Auriemma has the best record in college basketball. He can recruit the world’s best defensive players and the best shooters to the University of Connecticut. What does he look for? Women who can pass the ball, because they make everyone on the floor better.
In your business, these folks are called maximizers. They get the best work out of everyone on your team. Next time you have a chance to promote or recruit a new team member, look for the one who helps raise everyone else’s game.

5. Scoreboard.

In baseball, traditional player stats include hitting percentage and runs batted in (RBIs). Those are the wrong stats. Research shows that on-base average is more important; a walk is as good as a base hit when it comes to winning ball games. And Billy Bean reformulated the Oakland A’s by focusing on the right things, not the traditional things.

At work, bad metrics are all around us. For example, the largest Fortune 500 companies aren’t the most profitable companies, even though profitability is what actually matters.

Wanna be a pro and play at a higher level? Create a scoreboard filled with the right measures, not the popular measures.

Rebecca Ryan is the founder of Next Generation Consulting and auther of Live First, Work Second.

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