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What can you learn from the bleachers that you can apply to your work?

Game Theory

Game Theory

I’ve been sitting in bleachers watching sporting events for years. Maybe you’ve been doing the same thing. Recently I was watching one of my girls play volleyball and thinking about the life lessons they learn being a part of a team, working toward common goals, putting in the time and effort to excel. All great lessons, of course. But it seemed that we—all of us sitting in the stands—might learn a thing or two as well.


The David & Goliath stories so prevalent in sports seem to stem from this one key belief. Remember the 1980 U.S. hockey team and their gold medal victory over Russia? This was a team that was superior at every position. Their coach, Herb Brooks, knew this. The players knew this. In his pre-game speech, he told them, “If we played them 10 times, they might win 9.” An interesting way to get their attention. But he went on: “But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them and we shut them down because we can. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.

“Great moments are born from great opportunity,” he said, “and that’s what we have here tonight, boys. That’s what you’ve earned.” He was right. They had worked their tails off to be ready for their moment and they seized their opportunity.

Is your attitude one of belief in yourself, against all odds? It was for those boys, and it made all the difference.


As a parallel to the thoughts on belief, this can be tough to take. We’ve all been there: worked harder, connected better, provided better solutions and pricing, and still come up short. It’s incredibly frustrating.

From the stands, you watch athletes deal with this frequently. What do they do? Often, they express their emotions — tears, anger, frustration — and then, with the help of a coach or mentor, turn their attention inward. What can I learn from this? How can I improve? How can we become a better team?

This is our path as well. Let those emotions flow and then turn your attention inward, ask the tough questions, and figure out how to win the next one.


The greatest quarterbacks, goalies, and three-point shooters have one thing in common, and that’s very short memories. This might be true of anyone whose job requires them to deal with failure and rejection and continue getting up and moving on.

Salespeople, creatives, executives… we all make mistakes, we all miss the mark and fall short. We have to get up, again and again. Learn from every effort, make adjustments, and keep trying.

That’s resilience. That’s grit, and we all need a healthy dose of it.

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”



Pure speed on the athletic field is something amazing to behold. But when speed is combined with fluidity, strength, and grace…well that’s something else entirely.

Speed in business can also be powerful, but without grace it can be wasted motion. First to market is powerful, but overrated. There were other MP3 players available when Apple launched the iPod. But by combining the strength (10,000 songs in your pocket) with the grace of the industrial design (remember that click wheel?) Apple dominated. The iPod eventually sold more than 400 million units.

First is good if you can get there. Great is better.


What is the endgame? For your athlete, the goals might be quite tangible: playoffs, state titles, college scholarship, maybe even a professional career in sports.

For us, the goals are decidedly harder to get your arms around. Certainly, we may be concerned with ‘winning’ a new client, book of business, or promotion. And we’re likely to be focused on providing for our families.

But the goal line, if you will, might be 30 or 40 years in the future. The real endgame, where no one ever said, “I wish I had worked more.” How should we be remembered? What will be our epitaph? What will be our legacy?

I’m hoping to raise great kids who expand beyond the horizons of their expected reach. I’d like to leave the world better than I found it. I’m reaching for truth, integrity, and love.

Your goal line, of course, is up to you. But from 30,000 feet, petty grievances are petty hard to see.


Years ago, I read an article about parental involvement in kids’ athletics endeavors. The authors asked hundreds of college athletes to think back about their worst memory from playing youth and high school sports.

Their overwhelming response: “The ride home from games with my parents.”

Those same college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great, that amplified their joy during and after a ballgame.

Their response? “I love to watch you play.”

Six simple words to make someone feel great and amplify their joy.

Parents are there to parent, and coaches are there to coach. When we try to take on roles that aren’t ours or speak outside our realm of expertise, it doesn’t always translate. In fact, we might be causing unintended harm. So while you may have applicable experience and specific knowledge, first evaluate how your advice might be perceived by the person you’re addressing. Maybe a word or two of encouragement will be a more powerful way to achieve the same objective.

Special thanks to Michael Hoffbauer for his outstanding photo work.