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I acquired a taste for dirt during my athletic career that has served me as an entrepreneur. During any given game, I would hit the ground 50-plus times. In practice, I ran countless drills, hitting the ground and jumping right back up until falling no longer felt like a failure. The dirt on my face meant I was alive and fighting for a win.
In time, I developed a resilience unique to athletes and invaluable in business. A recent study at the University of South Florida found that 1 in 4 CEOs running large companies played competitive sports as adolescents and young adults. The study found that the firms run by former-athlete CEOs are more profitable, citing their characteristics of motivation and long-term goal orientation as notable factors.
While there are plenty of opportunities for us to learn resilience in life, competitive sports offer an accelerated pace of learning. Athletes have the advantage of experiencing numerous challenges that are designed to build resilience. They understand that repeatedly overcoming challenges will lead them to future wins. They practice determination amid mental and physical fatigue, making them champions of the long game. This type of resilience is invaluable as an entrepreneur. It’s what Venture Capitalists seek in founders and Private Equity firms seek in a CEO.
Related: Resilience is the New Normal: How to Bounce Back From Setbacks
Let resilience run the narrative
In addition to rebounding from countless failures, resilience also allows us to see these struggles as a necessary hardship, if not formative. Athletes benefit from coaches who constantly reframe these losses as they progress. Coaches frame the struggle as formative. There is always another game, another opportunity to show up and succeed. In the meantime, there’s resilience that galvanizes us against personal defeat.
Once I saw my professional failures as part of the “game,” they ceased to be a failure prognosis. Losing a dozen clients or more was progress, especially because I took a risk. I had to fail in order to learn and grow.
Related: How Failure Promotes Success – And Why It’s Time to Move Away From Perfectionism
Make it safe to fail
How can you incorporate this type of resilience in your own business? Create a culture where it is safe to fail. It’s easier said than done, but it begins by naming the risks you are taking or asking your team to take in order to reach a goal. The other critical piece is recapping after the fact so that failures can be reframed as growth. Otherwise, your team members are left calculating how to avoid repeating this again.
If it’s just you running the show, find a business mentor who will push you to see the big picture. Resilience is more than just being about to rebound from a setback. It’s also the ability to see these setbacks as temporary and maybe even necessary to your growth.
Related: Five Reasons Why Every Entrepreneur Needs a Great Mentor
Play competitive sports in your free time
From a neuroscience perspective, regular physical activity and sports have been shown to promote structural and functional brain changes associated with resilience. For example, sports participation is linked to enhanced connectivity between the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus — key regions that regulate emotions, stress responses and executive function. Sports also increase brain levels of BDNF, a growth factor involved in neuroplasticity and coping with stressors.
Psychologically, sports provide opportunities to develop mental toughness, optimism, self-efficacy and other resilience-related traits through repeated exposure to challenges and setbacks. Elite athletes score higher on measures of hardiness, a personality construct reflecting commitment, control and challenge linked to resilience. A meta-analysis found that athletes exhibit greater resilience than non-athletes, with effect sizes ranging from small to large depending on the sport and measure.
Studies across neuroscience, psychology and sports medicine provide converging evidence that competitive sports training develops resilience through both neurobiological and psychosocial mechanisms. Standardized resilience measures also confirm that athletes exhibit greater resilience that can be quantified, and this empirical data supports the claim that sports participation enhances resilience.
And, as elite entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and private equity firms know, resilience is the key to success.