June 25, 2024

From zero to goal: how sports shape successful founders

You might think that sports and entrepreneurship have little in common at first glance. However, upon closer examination, these two realms are built on similar values and qualities. 

In essence, the mindset and skills that allow an athlete to succeed are the same, enabling a founder to create a successful startup.

Consider this: the very resilience that drives an athlete to finish a marathon is what propels an entrepreneur to navigate the challenges of fundraising and business development. Similarly, the strategic thinking seen in sports—where split-second decisions can turn a game—is akin to the rapid, impactful choices entrepreneurs make to thrive in dynamic markets.

Sports and entrepreneurship have more than a few points of contact, and the lessons learned from sporting activities can be successfully translated into the business world.

To explore this topic further, we spoke with some members of our team and our startup community who dedicate themselves daily to their work and their sports activities with passion and dedication. 

Former student-athletes are expected to possess relatively greater leadership ability, self-confidence, and self-respect than others. They tend to demonstrate similar characteristics and report greater prosocial behaviour later in life.

“I see more similar things than distant ones” explains Oleksandr (Sasha) Komarevych, our Head of the Acceleration Program. “It probably depends on your approach to sport or entrepreneurship. As the Head of Acceleration at B4i, I've seen and assessed many founders over the years and noticed that the ones that had an athletic background of any sort have common traits that include discipline and accountability, handling pressure, being competitive, and being “doers” with high emotional intelligence. Definitely the athletic experiences can translate well to the entrepreneurial journey”.

What are the most interesting points of contact between these two worlds?

  • Goal Setting and Commitment: Athletes face injuries, and entrepreneurs deal with challenges like financial setbacks and market competition. Regardless of the obstacle in front of them, both have a clear final goal in mind.
  • Approach to risk and failure: Every day, you make decisions balancing potential rewards with possible failures. More importantly, there’s no room for defeat, only opportunities to improve.
  • Team players and management: Team sports and entrepreneurial activity have in common that individual talent is not enough. To succeed, it is necessary to know how to work and make a diverse team work.

Goal Setting and Commitment

Athletes are masters at setting and pursuing clear, actionable goals—a trait imperative for any entrepreneur. They don't just dream big; they meticulously plan and execute strategies to achieve their objectives, making them adept at navigating the entrepreneurial landscape.

An insight that is reflected in the experience of one of the founders of our community, Annamaria Barbaro, CEO & Co-founder at Empethy: "A fundamental aspect I learned from dance is discipline. Classical dance requires daily commitment, long hours of training, and constant dedication. This discipline taught me the importance of being organized and working hard to achieve goals."

The path to athletic excellence is paved with relentless practice, discipline, and the ability to perform under strain or suboptimal conditions. Athletes’ capacity to dedicate themselves entirely to their sport mirrors the entrepreneurial journey, where similar sacrifices and a robust work ethic determine the trajectory of business success. "I remember one particularly challenging day when I was dealing with an inflamed shoulder and other issues that kept me from focusing," David Djokovic, CEO of Flashka, told us. "My coach told me that if I could manage an average performance on a bad day, I would perform even better on a good day. The idea that 'the days you struggle are the days you improve the most' has profoundly influenced my approach to entrepreneurship."

Approach to risk and failure

"Handling failures in dance has been one of the most valuable lessons I've learned, preparing me to face challenges in my entrepreneurial journey," continued Annamaria. "I remember one particular incident during an important performance. I made a significant mistake and felt devastated. However, my coach helped me see the error as an opportunity to improve. I analyzed what went wrong, worked on my weaknesses, and returned stronger and more prepared for the next performance."

The risk that things may not go exactly as planned is a natural aspect of the lives of athletes and entrepreneurs. The factors one can control are limited, and often preparation and effort alone are not enough to avoid accidents, setbacks, or failures. The important thing, for both an athlete and a founder, is to see in the incidents the possibility to learn a lesson and improve.

Team players and management

Much like sports, where the sum of all players' contributions leads to success, entrepreneurship thrives on teamwork. Athletes excel in environments where cooperation and the amalgamation of diverse skills propel the team forward. This understanding of team dynamics is crucial for any startup, where success is often hinged on working cohesively towards a shared vision.

"Team sports such as football, basketball, volleyball inspire teamwork, leadership, and communication, which are vital for entrepreneurs in team settings," explains Sasha.

"For example, the quote, 'Talent wins games, teamwork wins championships,' often attributed to basketball legend Michael Jordan, means that while individual talent is important for winning games, it takes teamwork and intelligence to win championships."

Jordan recognized that even the greatest individual players need the support and collaboration of their teammates to achieve the ultimate goal of winning a championship.

Effective communication, sharing of skills, and prioritizing the team's success over individual accolades are key to winning championships. Top business leaders also emphasize the importance of building strong teams over solely focusing on individual talent.

In summary, the quote highlights that while individual talent is important, it is a team's ability to work together effectively that ultimately leads to the highest levels of success, whether in sports, business, or other competitive arenas.

Conclusions and Rebel Sports Club

Sports and entrepreneurship have more than a few things in common. In B4i, we have seen this link between the two worlds under examination bear exceptional fruits, also thanks to the fact that many founders are really sporty. That's why Sasha started the Sports Rebel Club in 2023, a movement that has had more than 200 active members and has organised 21 padel games, 4 basketball and beach volleyball tournaments, and the first chess tournament. The purpose? To include more people from other startup and investment ecosystems and to nourish this fertile link between sports activity and entrepreneurship.

"The name Sports Rebels Club was born by speaking with founders to find that expression to unify what sports and entrepreneurship have in common - Rebellion. The Sports Rebels Club is growing with more founders and VCs in Milan" continued Sasha. "Doing a sport and running a company is hard, but they're a lot easier when we do them with people we like and from whom we can learn the best lessons to bring both inside the business and onto the playing field."