This article was first published in the 1st quarter 2018 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

The phenomenon of sport intersecting with everyday life can be traced back hundreds of years.

In ancient times, competitive sports were a key facet of the festivals the Greeks organised in honour of their gods, giving rise to the Olympic Games, while the Romans flocked to epic “sports” events, including gladiators ranged against lions, in the colosseums that foreshadowed modern stadiums.

There are many depictions of sport playing a role in Egyptian and Asian cultures, including a stick-and-ball game played by the Chinese that could have been a forerunner of the madding game we call golf.

In most patriarchal societies, sport was seen as a means to keep rumbustious boys in tow and out of mischief and even as a means to practise for war, given such literary phrases as one apocryphally attributed to the Duke of Wellington, that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”.

The concept of involvement in sport being a dress rehearsal for the rigours of everyday life has thus always been present, but it wasn’t until the latter stages of the 20th century and into the new millennium that the unrelenting quest to “run faster and jump higher” entered the realms of scientific study and it became apparent that the disciplinarian teachers and military officers of old might have been on the right track.

There is a strong case to be made that sport can teach us to be successful in other areas of life.

The benefits to health and wellbeing are numerous. These include proper functioning of the heart, weight management, improved blood circulation, toning of muscles, strengthening of bones and even controlling diabetes and cholesterol levels.

With diabetes, obesity, hypertension and raised cholesterol levels having been identified as having such an impact in the workplace, literally costing billions to economies in medication, inefficiency and lost working hours, regular exercise has been proved to help to make human bodies function more effectively.

However, it is in matters of the mind that physical activities, whether in a team context or by way of solitary pursuits, are seen to have the greatest bearing on being successful.

In their book Mind of the Meditator, Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz and Richard J Davidson show by way of brain imaging that when we master a task such as playing an instrument or advanced performance in a sport, specific parts of the brain are transformed – certain neural pathways grow and strengthen. 

South Africa’s Dr Ross Tucker is a highly respected expert in the field. A high-performance sports scientist, he is also an adjunct professor at the UCT School of Management Studies with a PhD in sports marketing.
Tucker’s expertise thus encompasses both the domains of sport and business. He has worked closely with and studied leading sportspeople and teams and is in no doubt that learnings in sport are germane to other areas of endeavour.

“I think the number-one lesson that successful sports teams teach people is the value of strategic leadership – and, to me, strategic leadership implies long-term leadership and that’s about vision, purpose and mission,” Tucker says.

He agrees that sport teaches people skills that will equip them in the business world and while he does not discount the lessons picked up in sports, such as teamwork, practice, respect and dedication, he questions whether sufficient attention is paid to inculcate those values.

“You can experience something without learning from it. Everyone in school is being exposed to the same set of lessons, but only one in 10 actually recognises what they’ve learnt,” Tucker says.

However, many believe that some of the things one picks up in sport could become intuitive; hidden in the recesses of the mind but primed to be triggered in certain situations.

The stuff of champions
In a recent address at the 29th Financial Planning Institute Professionals Convention, award-winning motivational speaker Ross Bernstein revealed teachings from what he terms “The Champion’s Code” – lessons from sports that could be implemented in business.

Bernstein said that researching his books he had interviewed more than 1 000 professional athletes and coaches and had come to the conclusion that the characteristics that were common among sports champions were also common in peak performers in business. 

According to Bernstein, there are eight traits that drive champions: passion (they love what they do), unselfishness (back a teammate), work ethic (practice makes perfect), trust (the people around you), 

visualisation (have a plan), consistency (predictable performance), compassion (sensitive to others) and respect (be humble). All these qualities can be translated to other walks of life.

Sports teach teamwork and respect for others, either by instilling trust and belief in those surrounding you or by instilling healthy motivation and admiration for those with greater expertise than yours. This, in turn, instils the desire to be better, which leads to perseverance and dedication, or plain old hard work.

To participate in sports, you have to be organised and punctual, you experience the uplifting emotions of victory but also the demoralisation of defeat, followed by the determination to improve and rise up again.
Then, of course, there is working in a team, even in individual sports where outsiders not directly involved play a role, which leads to experiencing the power of camaraderie – that one-for-all, all-for-one spirit that is a hallmark of successful enterprises.

Sports boost self-esteem as seeing hard work pay off, and achieving your goals develops self-confidence; invariably followed by the determination to aim for even better performance.

All these aspects of sporting life can be easily translated into being successful in other spheres.

It is a phenomenon former Free State Currie Cup rugby player Ross van Reenen attests to. Van Reenen, who played in the 1976 Free State team that won the Currie Cup, describes himself as an academic and businessman. He built up his own successful financial services company, of which he is now chairman, and having noticed the cross-over from sportsman to businessman in his own milieu, he delved into the subject. The result was the best-selling book, From Locker Room to Boardroom – converting rugby talent into business success.

Apart from studying the likes of Dr Danie Craven, Jan Pickard and Louis Luyt, Van Reenen interviewed recent heroes such as Kevin de Klerk, Francois Pienaar and Gary Teichmann who have made a success of life after rugby.

“The one thing from a business point of view that is critically important is the discipline (learnt on the sports field). They are all focused, controlled and unwavering in how they do things.

“The parallel is being five points down on the rugby field with five minutes left to play and not panicking but believing in yourself, your processes and your people,” Van Reenen says.

Strategic leadership
Tucker adds another aspect of sport that could be echoed in business: the correlation in the methods of top coaches and successful enterprises.

“From a management and performance leadership perspective, the principle of interest is a long-term strategy. If you look at high-performance sport now, that’s what it is about. 

“Strategic management by definition is long term; strategy is five years or more,” Tucker says. “What it requires is that you have to have a vision and then you have to have an alignment of that vision. New 
Zealand rugby is an example of successful alignment, and South African rugby is an example of non-existent alignment.

“In the post-isolation period, South African rugby has had almost as many coaches as there have been years, and not just coaches but people in other important decision-making positions.

“That lack of continuity is a symptom of something, and the symptom is a lack of strategic thinking in management. You have to recognise the problem, find the solution and then translate and communicate that knowledge as broadly as possible,” Tucker says.

This supports the key characteristic of sport that can be translated into other enterprises: the importance of people and the aspects of respect, bonding, camaraderie, trust, leadership, collective will and even to serve that are so important to success.

There is obviously a flipside, people who detest sports, but even in the lonely individualistic pursuits such as surfing, cycling (which at the top end is hardly individual), road and trail running and hiking there is intuitive karma in sport to lighten the tunnel and, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run”.


Of all the games that mimic everyday life, golf is probably the closest. They even have a word for it – Lilagog (Life Is Like A Game Of Golf). They say it is called golf because all the other four-letter words were taken, and, as a metaphor for life, there can be no better example.

  • The game seems dead simple yet can be infuriatingly complex.
  • It takes many hours of practice to perfect and all that practice can be undone in a single shot.
  • It is played in beautiful surroundings yet a single miscued stroke can send you into the darkest of places.
  • It is a never-ending cycle of ups and downs, of glorious triumphs and frustrating failures.
  • It is inherently unfair, contains far too great an element of luck and requires an unfailing sense of equilibrium to be successful. 
  • It requires skill, a clear mind and determination, but also none of those.
  • You have to remain in the present, eliminate setbacks and not dwell on the future; yet you have to have a clear goal.
  • Like life, it is never completely mastered.

As the great Bobby Jones, whose feat of winning the open and amateur championships of Great Britain and the United States in a single year (1930) gave rise to the concept of the “Grand Slam” so aptly put it: “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots, but you have to play the ball where it lies.”