Lessons learned from sports

In the week of April 17th-April 20th, ESSEC is celebrating the inauguration of its new Sports and Recreation center on the Cergy campus. On this momentous occasion, ESSEC Sports Chair professor Karoline Strauss shares key lessons we can take from sport and apply to our professional and personal lives.

  • Sometimes you lose. What matters is how you bounce back. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, we can see top athletes and players at the best clubs in the world be genuinely upset. We would be, too. Years of preparation and complete dedication go into every sports performance. Part of the excitement of watching sports is in fact the raw emotion we see play out when fractions of a second or a single move make the difference between victory and defeat. Soon after, however, these sportswomen and -men seem to have put this loss behind them. While we may still be upset about our favourite team having lost the game, the players have moved on to thinking about the next game. Success in sport means not dwelling on your setbacks. Once you have analysed what went wrong, it is time to look forward.
  • Think of your ability as malleable. Of course, our genetics put some limits on what we can achieve. But if we think of our abilities as innate, as something we are born with, our focus becomes to showcase them, rather than to develop them. This goes for our physical abilities, but also for other qualities like creativity, math ability, and verbal skills. Believing that our talents can be developed by working hard, developing the right strategies, and listening to feedback and advice shifts our focus to learning. And this develops the very qualities others may think of as fixed and inherent.
  • Picture yourself succeeding. Sport scientists have long known about the power of mental simulation: rehearsing actions in our mind without the actual physical movements involved. Studies back this up: Tennis players who practice imagining service returns, hitting the ball over the net into the court after the opponent’s serve, significantly improve their performance, at least under some circumstances. Elite basketball players who were unable to train as normal during the COVID-19 pandemic maintained and even improved their physical performance capacity if they mentally simulated resistance training. In our daily lives, mental simulation allows us to make better plans, problem solve, and manage our emotions. Imagining yourself succeed makes it more likely that you will. Of course, this does not mean we can just sit back and fantasize about how sweet victory will be. Having a clear image of our goal can provide the motivational boost we need, but we also have to have a plan for how we will get there.
  • Make your team a safe place to speak up. In sports and in business, teams perform best when their members share the belief that the team is an environment in which it is okay to ask a question, seek feedback, propose a new idea, or report an error – when the time is right, of course. In a study of over 50 Women’s College Basketball Teams, those teams in which players felt safe to speak up had a higher percentage of wins than their less safe counterparts. Coaches and leaders play an important role in creating this safe team environment, and treating team members in condescending or demeaning ways will quickly undermine their sense that they can take risks and make suggestions. 
  • You are more than one thing. After an injury, a poor performance, or a crushing disappointment like not being selected for a team, athletes who have little sense of who they are outside of the world of sports are likely to struggle. When things go wrong in athletes’ careers, those who think of themselves exclusively as athletes are left most vulnerable. When we define ourselves in terms of one single identity, our self-worth is at risk when this identity is threatened. In the face of setbacks, knowing that there are other important roles we play in our lives can protect our sense of self. Athletes are of course not the only ones whose identity can be under threat. In a world in which technology rapidly transforms industries, many of us need to redefine who we are or want to become, and narrowly defining ourselves in relation to a set role or profession can prevent us from adapting.

The ESSEC Sports Chair prepares students for a career in the sports industry and brings leadership lessons learned from sport to students across ESSEC’s different programmes. Students of the Chair take a set of dedicated courses and seminars focused on key dynamics in the global sports ecosystem, ranging from the digital transformation of the sector and new investment models to the role of data and analytics and issues such as sustainability and inclusion and diversity in sports. The Chair offers students a range of learning experiences, connections with the alumni community, and close collaboration with its partners Allianz, EDF, Paris Saint-Germain, Stade Français Paris, the French Basketball Federation, INSEP, and Sport dans la Ville. The Sports Chair is open to students from the Global BBA, Specialized Masters, and Masters in Management programmes. Check the ESSEC Sport Chair LinkedIn page for more information about this chair.