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Like an athlete, business owners must prepare to go pro

After swimming the last race of an 11 year amateur swimming career, a little reflection…not despair.

The margin of victory for a world-class athlete seems to shrink with each advance in our ability to measure minute differences in performance, whether the race is on a track, in a pool, on open water or down a mountain.

The difference between first and second place is often measured in a few thousandths of a second, with no more than a few hundredths of a second separating the first half-dozen competitors.

For example, the winner of a 100 meter world championship swimming event beat his competitor to the finish by 4.7 millimeters, a tiny 0.0047 percent margin of victory. If your business passed a competitor grossing $100,000 in sales by 0.0047 percent, you’d sell an extra $4.70.

That might seem like a meaningless difference until it’s the margin between winning a big contract and losing it.

Like a 4.7 millimeter lead, that “meaningless difference” might be traced back to one little thing:

  • One missed phone call vs. one call answered on the first ring.
  • One bounced email vs. one personal email response.
  • One product out of stock on the shelf but sitting in the inventory closet vs. every shelf stocked and faced.

Even though businesses don’t measure performance in the same way athletes do, the strategies that athletes use to advance their performance and overcome obstacles also make sense for small business owners.

Mental and Physical Preparation

Long before the event occurs, world-class swimmers and runners see themselves touching the wall or crossing the finish line for the win. They play that “movie” repeatedly in their mind as they workout. Similar to the muscle memory that a physical workout or event practice forms, visualization helps athletes strengthen themselves mentally.

Likewise, the visualization and practice of a sales call or trade show presentation are essential mental workouts for the business owner. They’re essential to maintain the focus, composure and discipline needed to perform at their highest-ever levels, particularly when faced with world-class competition.

Mental preparation alone is not enough for the athlete or the business owner. Despite the best mental preparation, the athlete must prepare their physical body for competition. For the business owner, mental preparation does not execute the strategy, make the call or give the presentation for the business – that physical work must also be practiced before competition.

Dealing with Adversity

For the amateur, quitting can be the easiest thing to do when faced with adversity. For a professional, quitting tends to be limited to a physical inability to continue or the risk of a career-ending injury. A professional’s perseverance is rooted in the strength developed through mental preparation and is the difference between being prepared to quit vs. being prepared to continue.

Unfortunately, adversity due to an inability to recover from a known obstacle. Rather than dealing with obstacles as they’re met, high achievers in both sport and business cut their risk by preparing for obstacles in advance.

In addition to the nutrition control, physical workouts and mental training an amateur might use to prepare themselves, the professional is likely to include specialized efforts that enable them to take known obstacles in stride or when possible, avoid them. However, some obstacles cannot be avoided. When a marathon includes a hill climb at mile 22, the professional runner might practice hill climbs after a 22 mile run. By contrast, an amateur runner might practice hill climbs as one of their workouts, if they practice them at all.

Business owners can prepare for obstacles by cross-training their staff, building redundancy into critical systems, testing disaster plans, having alternative inventory providers and keeping their legal, insurance and finance systems up to date. They should ask “What if?”, “What is possible?” and “How do we prepare?” long before adversity arises.


Performance evaluation is critical to the steady improvement of any professional athlete or business owner, but most professional athletes don’t stop at self-evaluation. They use a coach.

Even though their coach cannot run as fast, swim as quickly or hit the ball as hard as today’s professional athletes, few professional athletes would dream of competing without a coach. Many athletes credit their coach as an essential factor in their ability to improve, much less remain competitive.

A good coach can observe and analyze many aspects of an athlete’s form, motion and mental preparedness from a perspective the athlete simply cannot assume. A coach’s suggestion for even a tiny change in physical motion or preparation can produce substantial improvements in athletic performance.

A business coach can have the same level of impact. Like the athlete’s coach, they make observations from an external perspective, seeing things the business owner can’t see, or doesn’t see the same way. It isn’t that the business owner is less competent or observant, the coach simply benefits from a different perspective. The coach sees beyond “We’ve always done it this way” and can ignore the internal politics or “baggage” that might blind the business owner to what later seems obvious.

Most professional athletes have a coach, yet few small business owners have one. Why?


When world-class athletes fail to win the big event that they’ve trained for years to compete in, their initial reaction might seem to be despair over the loss.

Frequently, the reality is that athletes who “lost” by a few thousandths of a second are focused on the fact that they posted their best-ever performance. The appearance of post-event despair is often about finally being able to relax and enjoy achieving a goal they’ve worked so hard to achieve – posting their best-ever performance at a world-class competition.

For the business owner, it’s not much different than what you feel the end of that big trade show, the first calm moment after a successful new product launch or when leaving the site of a long-awaited presentation that went well.

For athletes and business owners alike, the real victory comes in outdoing your best you.


I am blogging on behalf of Visa’s Go World Olympic Campaign and receive compensation for my time from Visa for sharing my views in this post, but the views expressed here are solely mine, not Visa’s.

This post was sponsored by Visa Small Business. From now through August 31st, visit to learn about Team Visa Olympic athletes who are also dedicated small business owners. Visit Visa Business’s newly-launched Facebook Page ( for more details, and follow @VisaSmallBiz for ways to help make your small business more efficient and successful. Discover more at