No, burning yourself out does not make you a business athlete

Let's stop guilt-tripping people into working crazy hours by pretending that it's what pro athletes do.

No, burning yourself out does not make you a business athlete

I can see how the Tech industry would want to compare itself to the pro sports world. There's fierce competition, quick pace of innovation, and great teamwork is required to be in the elite.

But it stops right there.

About 90% of the tweets that I see tracing an analogy between a founder/executive/top performer and an athlete tend to go like this:

X does so many long hours, never slept, and did everything they had to to get to where they are. Just like <insert name of your favourite athlete>

I understand the appeal. We're talking about sacrifices, work ethic, focus, dedication. At first, it's easy to make it like it's all the same.

And it becomes a way to pressure people to burn the candle at both ends, under the pretense that this is what elite people do in the one industry that is unapologetically about competing and winning.

Athletes know how to win. Let's emulate them.

And this is where everything breaks. Sports teams seldom do what business people do.

Training is constant

Recruiting talent is one thing, helping that talent to grow year after year is another. Preparation, practice, and conditioning are a massive part of the life of an athlete. They don't just go from one game to another all year long. They put a great emphasis on sharpening their skills and improving areas where they're lacking.

Training people is still an afterthought for most businesses, and it can even be seen as a negative thing (oh you're slacking then?) when employees want to attend courses or conferences.

They rest, a lot

Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, the San Antonio Spurs' Head Coach, Gregg Popovich, decided to rest his top players. It was the sixth game on the road, and nobody was injured. People paid good money to see the top of the league clash (they were playing Lebron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami) in what was expected to be a big game.

But coach Pop chose to leave most of their starting 5 on the bench.

The NBA fined them $250,000.

Fast forward to today, and every team is doing it. They realized that to be able to perform when it matters the most (playoffs), you need to pace yourself during the regular season.

Yes, you'll have times where you'll go the extra mile, where you'll dig deep in your resources to overcome an adverse situation. But that should not be the norm.

And that's not just a team thing. People training to achieve great individual performance (think Iron Man) have sleep baked into their schedule. They get massages, they eat well, they make sure that their body and mind will be in top shape to perform on race day.

They do train hard, and you can equally work with a fierce intensity. But commitment should not equal exhaustion.

It baffles me that we're still using variations of "rest is for losers" to justify unhealthy habits in the workplace. We can keep on trying to fake performance on 4 hours of sleep - but let's stop conflating focus with burning out.

They don't rush

Credit: Alex Caparros / Stringer

If you focus on Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi an entire game, you'll notice one thing. They walk a lot. They're 2 of the most explosive athletes you can find, but they wait for the perfect opportunity to overcome their opponents. It's much easier to defend someone who's always running, than to keep up with someone who changes their rhythm.


The former may be faster than you, but they're easier to predict. Great tennis players can anticipate where the next shot will be, and get to the ball in time even though it moves much faster than them.

The latter keeps you on your toes. You can never tell when the next move will be, or where it will come from. It requires much more attention and concentration even though things may look still at times.

This is again something that businesses can do better. Putting your head down, and sprinting as fast as you can non-stop, is a poor way of finding success. You need to take regular breaks to look at the field in front of you. It's only when you find the right opportunity that it makes sense to push for a play.

Yes, be like an athlete

I'd love it to see the world of business taking a few things from pro sports. Celebrate fair play, invest in well-being, take mental health seriously, rest your team, pace your rhythm, keep your head up, have ethics, punish cheating, level the playing field, take time to sharpen everyone's skills, seek competition (instead of killing it), inspire the next generation.

So, yes please, by all means, let's learn from athletes. But let's do it properly.