The Sports Entrepreneur

Enter the Sports Entrepreneur

How many  elite sports people are natural entrepreneurs and why does sport bring out entrepreneurial skills. It’s fine and easy to accept that sport benefits society but what if sports and not just at top level is better at developing business skills than conventional education? Every so often people commentators conspire to suggest there is a shortage of entrepreneurial talent in this country. What if as JSB (John Seely Brown) suggests extreme and other sports are great business schools? Those were some of my thoughts when I realised I had met an archetypal sporting entrepreneur in front of me. Rather like Monsieur Jourdain  in one of Moliere’s plays who didn’t realise was speaking prose, one of the World’s best goalkeepers, certainly during Arsenal’s double winning season  was a role model  entrepreneur in action. How and why does sports develop the entrepreneurial spirit and how can we capitalise on it if that is the case were my thoughts.

I must admit I was initially surprised as was ex Arsenal goalkeeper and TV presenter Bob Wilson himself to through the profile come out of the closet….. as such having a strong entrepreneurial outlook. By the sceptical outlook I could tell he would have preferred the ‘goalkeeper crazy’ tag line.  Lawrie McMenemy who had once offered him a role as assistant manager at Southampton wasn’t surprised when I mentioned the finding to him.  He knew about Bob Wilson’s background in becoming the first sportsman in the UK to make it on to TV, his pioneering of goalkeeping coaching in this country (he ran one of the first goalkeeping schools) as well as how Bob and his wife Megs set up the Willow Foundation from their back bedroom. Neither was it a surprise to those attending the conference this year organised by the Egyptian Cabinet Office Think Tank on Talent. I’ d done my research on two hero’s former Egyptian soccer goalkeeper and sports commentator, now MP  Ahmed Shobeer as well as  veteran Egyptian goalkeeper’ the high dam’  Essam El-Hadary who has a fascinating background.  Football consumed his dreams and his heart and his father did everything possible to keep Essam from playing football. He used to burn his training suit in front of him to make him feel how wrong it is to focus on football rather than his education.  (And those who will know Bob might recall a certain similarity as  his father turned down an offer with the Busby Babes so that Bob could get an education.(at Loughborough) Football was not a proper job according to his father. ‘

At this point it’s worth explaining more about my interpretation of entrepreneur as well as the research findings of Professor Hall, author of In the company of  Hero’s that developed the entrepreneurial profile. There are a number of definitions of entrepreneur and what they do; Professor Hall who developed the entrepreneurial profile used Hall points out, a difference between a tycoon; an entrepreneur who has become very big, very rich and very famous, someone like Richard Branson or Duncan Bannantyne, and an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur for him is somebody who starts and builds something of long-term value, often from practically nothing, usually an unsung hero.  For him they do not all fit the popular stereotype of the flamboyant or publicity conscience. It’s also generally true that however many fallbacks entrepreneurs devise, at some point they still have to risk everything in pursuit of their dream.  Professor David Hall characterizes this as what makes them different from every other profession. There is no other club; he argues that when you join you put everything on the line, including personal assets, reputation, ego, sanity and sometimes personal relationships. Clearly Hall never kept goal nor was a member of the SAS. As Bob Wilson once said ‘being a goalkeeper is like walking a tightrope every match.’

Now it seems fashionable to be an entrepreneur but it’s easy to forget that for many years they were seen as troublemakers by the establishment. – They played fast and loose with the rules. Of course the dictionary definition of entrepreneur is the French origins in entering and taking. As Duncan Bannatyne says you enter a business and take a profit.  Now I tend to support the Hall definition I’m also of the view Entrepreneurs do not always have to be financially driven.  For me Schumpeter, the Economist and is patron saint of Entrepreneurs, in mapping the entrepreneurial psyche presents an alternative perspective in describing entrepreneurs as those who ‘create at the risk of their own self-destruction’ And anyone who watched Bob Wilson as goalkeeper will recall the diamond in his game was the ability to dive at feet ‘It was a God-given asset’.  In fact Bill Shankly, the late Liverpool manager touched on Bob’s courage and style in a post-match interview and said of Bob ‘There are lots of good goalkeepers around. What makes Wilson outstanding is his courage. He’ll dive at player’s feet and make quick decisions. He had his share of luck but bravery encourages luck.’ Bob is clear too that his quasi-kamikaze style wasn’t deliberate, rather instinct. ‘The one natural thing, absolutely natural, was the ability to dive head first at feet like my hero Bert Trautmann, the moment an attacker lost a tiny bit of control. Actually few goalkeepers historically have been able to do that’ he adds. Mind you there was a price to pay.  Over twenty stitches in his head, an ear almost torn off, chipped shoulder bone, six broken ribs, five cracked ribs, a punctured lung, torn cartilage and ligaments, a broken arm, a dislocated elbow, several broken fingers and a broken ankle were proof of Bob’s high ability to tolerate pain.

Professor David Hall and associated extensively researched  entrepreneurs and identified six area getting in the zone and staying in the zone, seeing possibilities, creating superior opportunities opening up to the world and building capabilities. What he calls the  Entrecode®. Model. Here’s my summary of what the six key attributes are from his excellent book In the Company of Heroes.

Getting in the Zone

Getting in the zone is about the optimal state of mind to create success. From Hall’s research entrepreneur exhibit a patient determination in the face of inevitable setbacks, they persist, and they generally get there in the end. They all share a real passion for what they are trying to achieve. They set challenging, realistic goals that provide the energy to go forward.  This is very similar to the attitude required of a sportsman at the beginning of his career. According to Hall’s research far more important than mechanistic, analytical plans the most important factor is the obsessive commitment, passion and vision of the individual.  . Put simply this getting in the zone means getting their mind and bodies focused and coordinated. For an elite sports person it’s a when mind and body work in perfect synch and movements seem to flow without conscious effort. The same is true of successful entrepreneurs. They have an extremely focused way of thinking and behaving which creates the drive and energy required to succeed. Self-belief and inner drive is essential.

Staying in the Zone

Staying in the Zone is about prioritising, sequencing and focussing energy on a specific target (in a goalkeeper’s case not letting a goal in!) Being entrepreneurial in outlook is a high energy process, and anything which deflects or dilutes this energy adds costs not value to the process. A useful analogy is to think of goal directed energy as a laser beam locked onto a specific target. This goal directed energy has a strong correlation with entrepreneurial success and is a key process that links vision and dreams to results. This area then is about focus, having a positive mind-set (it’s refreshing meeting top entrepreneurs they generally aren’t cynical and have a refreshing joie de vivre, well most of them!)being self-determined and showing persistence in recovering from setbacks. Quoting from my chapter on him in Talent Bob found this easy to relate to ‘It has been a case of saying I’ll prove you wrong, so persistence has played a major part. There are always knock backs along the way. Instead of going under it is the case that it is something within me saying I’ll prove you wrong.’

Seeing Possibilities

This is about how entrepreneurs view the world, take in information and create insights. Here it’s all about focussing on the big picture not low level issues and being ‘savvy’ confidently using intuition and experience to make judgements. Well isn’t that you want of a goalkeeper, the only one to have a panoramic view of the game. Let’s not forget too that in Bob’s era he was ‘just being coached in the normal team sessions by Don Howe at Arsenal – he coached the team and me the goalkeeper.  I used to do my sessions with him and say, ’This has nothing to do with goalkeeping’. And I saw the Brazilians train once in the 1966 world cup and saw the goalies go off separately. And suddenly the brain went specialisation. And then something that sparked me into saying that doesn’t exist. Let’s make it exist. And now all the guys who are goalkeeping coaches in the United Kingdom earning very good salaries say thanks.’

Creating Superior Opportunities

This is about identifying client problems that need to be solved and leveraging solutions to transform business results. What’s covered here are the ability to understands the problems customers face, make connections from different sources, solve  customer problems with solutions that create opportunities and delight customers. This area is possibly the lowest one for most sports stars (but not coaches) – the phrase winning ugly springs to mind.

Opening Up to the World

This is concerned with building networks and forming relationships to enable the business to develop. Key abilities here are passion and inspiration, purposeful (not random or reactive) networking and creating partnerships. Entrepreneurs might be highly competitive (though not excessively so in all cases) but like rugby players they can set aside differences and ambitions for the team.

Building Capability.

Defined as focussing efforts on  building the capacities of the business this is concerned with building a strong team by coordinating and motivating the right people, experiential learning, and staying on track by investing efforts into maintaining performance and what the Japanese call for those who did Quality Kaizen or continuous improvement the fashion of the nineties.

Looking at Bob’s profile provided a number of insights to fuel the research. What also came across was how he met his hero Bert Trautman. – I recall  Floyd you blogged on heroes, and like many sports people he got to meet his hero. Additionally mentors played a key role in his development. What I learned most though from Bob was how whilst he’s an extraordinary individual; chance and coincidence have played their role in his life. At the same time he has persevered and his success has been no accident of history.  How he has transformed his life three times; teacher to goalkeeper, goalkeeper to TV presenter and TV presenter to co-founder of a unique charity the Willow Foundation provides an object lesson for anyone considering a career move or how to deal with a life change. Here can I promote the Willow Foundation – the research is in support of them The Willow Foundation was founded in 1999 by Bob and Megs Wilson as a lasting memorial to their daughter, Anna, who died of cancer aged 31 The charity is the only one of its type that provides special days for seriously ill16 to 40 year olds. The depth of his experience and breadth of his vision along with that of his wife Megs is an inspiration for those who have to deal with life threatening illnesses affecting those at the prime of their lives.

From my part it has been an enriching experience to be associated with the charity. Indeed Bob Wilson is a hard act to follow as one well known entrepreneur commented.

For my next instalment I’d like to turn to my experience of exploring the notion of the sporting entrepreneur then comparing them to their peers in business as well as SAS entrepreneurs and those in the arts. In the meantime I would be intrigued as to how many sporting entrepreneurs you have come across and you have spotted the same characteristics or any diifferences. I’d also like to take you through a research trip into the dark side of elite performance. What happens when talent go’s wrong and why?

Have a great trip to Iraq and in your case I am sure you will enjoy it! (as would I)

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