Business of sport: adapting to new realities

By Robert Half on 3rd July 2020

At Robert Half and Protiviti we believe there is tremendous value to be gained in collaborating and learning from each other at this challenging time. Hearing new and unexpected perspectives from others can help challenge your thinking, provide confidence in your own plans and increase your resilience.

More than 240 business leaders joined our sixteenth Enterprise & Market Resilience During COVID-19 virtual roundtable at 8.00 am on Thursday 2 July. The aim is to have an hour-long meeting each week on Thursdays and build a community of people from different industries who can share relevant materials and experiences of operating in ‘the new normal’.

This week’s panel of speakers included five notable people from the world of sport: Jon Dutton, Chief Executive, Rugby League World Cup 2021; Brendan Taylor, Executive Vice President, Wasserman (UK); Liz Johnson, Paralympic Gold Medallist and athlete mentor; Derek Redmond, retired British athlete, gold medal Olympian and motivational speaker; and Nick Fenton-Wells, Team Manager, Bristol Bears.

16 June 2020 Key Takeaways

  • Those who are best prepared mentally to adapt to change created by adversity will win.
  • Sometimes you have to make short-term sacrifices to achieve your end goal.
  • Surround yourself with high quality experts who understand your motivation to succeed but also give you the freedom to fail and learn from your mistakes.

Dealing with the COVID-19 crisis

Jon Dutton and his team have been planning for the Rugby League World Cup 2021 since 2015. The event will include 61 games played by men, women and wheelchair teams - and with 500 days to go there is still time to plan, even in uncertain times.

The team adopted a set of guiding principles that have held the project in good stead, including keep calm and make rational decisions; stay agile and responsive to change; be responsible; and remain positive. Its strapline is ‘Power of Together’, and while ticket sales have been pushed back, Jon hopes that the event will go ahead as planned in October and November 2021.

COVID-19 brought an extra layer of complexity to the planning process but the important outcome is that the diverse and inclusive event will have a positive social impact, he said.

Brendan Taylor, whose company represents top flight golf professionals, brands and properties, said that when sport effectively closed down the key elements to get in place were strong leadership and effective communication.

Golfing events have now started up again, with stringent health and safety measures in place. Some professionals have kept their training regimes in place and will come back with a high level of performance, others have taken the opportunity to relax and spend time with their families. Some have taken alternative jobs to fill the time normally used to travel to tournaments or commentate on events.

Staying positive

Overall, the community are looking forward to getting back up and running with a positive mindset. This positive view on the future of golf has been helped by arranging a PRO/AM charity event, keeping people’s minds occupied while raising money for good causes.

Jon added that it’s also important (in business and in sport) to focus on things that you can control, rather than trying to control the uncontrollable. Having teams play in front of crowds internationally is part of his team’s business plan, but it’s impossible to know when a vaccine might be ready or it’s safe for players and supporters to travel.

Sponsorship also depends on having live games, but in the case of golf, headline sponsors have kept going, said Brendan - albeit altering their messaging to suit current times and sentiment. Sport is a great way for brands to communicate with people, and this has not changed.

Liz Johnson agreed that both business leaders and athletes have had to be resilient and self-motivated during lockdown as they have when faced with any setback. Young athletes are told all the time that even if they are at the top of their game they still need to prepare themselves for obstacles that may be thrown at them and potentially distract them from their performance, and the current situation is no different.

The second lesson is to realise that no-one can do everything on their own. In the case of elite swimming, Johnson’s own sport, athletes depend on coaches, nutritionists and physiotherapists to help them win medals, for example. It’s important for athletes/leaders to recognise that they need different perspectives if they not to lose the ability to rationalise and therefore under-perform.

What can business learn from sport?

Derek Redmond reiterated that business leaders can learn from sport and vice versa, because the successful mindset is the same in both scenarios. He explained his ADAPT methodology, which begins with A for acceptance: in sport this can be being told that you are being dropped from a team, for example.

It’s unlikely that the decisions will be reversed, so it’s best to put energies into identifying the next steps, which are D for direction and A for alternatives: finding new career paths either inside or outside sport. P is for planning how those paths will work out, and T is for transitioning into a new role.

Athletes face change all the time, he said, but the key is not to fight it but to think positively about what comes next. When it comes to major disappointments like the delayed Olympics 2020, everyone is in the same boat. Individual athletes should not think it’s only going to affect them, any more than a strong headwind in a track event will only affect only one out of the eight runners.

Nick Fenton-Wells said that while his Bristol Bears rugby team are missing the social side of meeting up to play, they continue to have great self-motivation and team spirit. These elements have been deliberately fostered during lockdown, he said, because being physically fit is just one part of being successful as a rugby player: being mentally fit is equally important.

It was almost a given that team members would get the work done in terms of staying fit, and that they had the tools at home to do so, but heads of departments at the club have made sure to stay in regular contact with staff and players to ensure they were staying positive about the future.

Other activities have included sharing individuals’ recommendations on books or downloads, quizzes and online meetings. Having already trained a team of mental health first aiders before lockdown has also helped.

Sportsmen and women perform best under pressure, added Derek Redmond, and we have all become experts in technology and video calls simply because we have had to accept and adapt to it quickly.

Diversity and inclusion: a winning combination

Finally, the panel considered the impact of diversity and inclusion on the performance of athletic teams and what businesses could learn from it. Liz Johnson said that as well as being the right path to follow, having a diverse and inclusive team will be more successful: there is strength in diversity.

This is because it provides a platform where everyone can feel comfortable to be the best version of themselves and to bring their particular strengths into the mix, instead of always striving to be like one single type. Having this more humanised platform also helps support mental health, which then enables individuals to deliver their best performance.

Jon Dutton commented that it is important to demonstrate action as well as words, such as actively making entry fees and prize money equal across all teams competing in the Rugby League World Cup 2021, including teams outside the usual range such as Papua New Guinea and Brazil and working with mental health charities.

The next roundtable will focus in still further on the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive team throughout organisations.

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