If you’re a sports fan, it’s been a glorious summer with the European and Latin American football championships followed by the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Analogies between sports and business have always been popular because there are so many examples of inspiring athletes stretching themselves and high-performing teams working seamlessly together. Yet, it’s not surprising that many business leaders feel that watching sports, unlike playing sports, isn’t particularly relevant. However, there are some interesting psychological processes behind watching sports that might tell a different story.
Watching sport is often an emotional rollercoaster. Our emotional experience almost literally becomes “faster, higher, stronger” as we are drawn into the drama unfolding in front of us. When our emotions run fast and strong, they can take us in unexpected directions. Suddenly, the stranger standing next to us becomes our best friend as we embrace in a hug when our team scores. Or we can become speechless as we watch in awe as an athlete, at the height of their powers, dives off a high board or propels their bike off a ramp.
How Sport Stretches Our Emotional Experience
Some psychologists suggest that one of the reasons watching sport is so popular is that it stretches our emotional experience. When we watch sport, we surrender to the moment and don’t know where we’ll be taken. This is heightened when we watch live sport, not only do we not know the end result neither does anyone around us. This is one of the reasons that watching sport is different from many other forms of entertainment. Seeing a movie, going to the theatre or watching a band are all great individual and collective experiences but they are pre-planned whereas sport unfolds in front of us.
If we apply this to a business context this is true when working in teams. As much as we like to plan, events often deviate. By watching sport, we learn how elite athletes react to a setback – the team that rallies after conceding a goal or the diver who puts a bad dive behind them and then executes the next one brilliantly. These examples help us to reflect on our own individual responses and how we can improve.
How Sport Can Create A Level Playing Field
Another lesson we can learn from watching sport is how sport tries to create a level playing field for athletes or teams to compete. The pursuit of excellence within pre-defined boundaries. I think this is one of the reasons that we dislike cheating in sport so much. It undermines the integrity and achievement of reaching higher goals.
At work, people appreciate clarity and fairness when it comes to rewards and recognition. I believe at work there can be no happiness without fairness. This is because our instinctive reaction to injustice is to feel angry. In fact, this is such a strong instinct that we can easily feel angry on other people’s behalf when we see them treated unfairly.
Less constructively, some people live vicariously through their sporting associations. When their team wins life is good but when they lose, life can turn sour. Psychologically these people are giving over their lives to fate. This can be especially troublesome when people’s emotions run out of control, and they start to “act out” blaming others for their own disappointment. We saw this after England lost the finals of the Euros and a flurry of racist abuse was hurled at some of the young black England players. Less well reported, but equally as disturbing, was the large increase in domestic violence. At work we see this type of emotional immaturity play out – perhaps a boss who shouts at their team when they lose a contract or blames another team for letting them down.
Mental Health And Well-being
Work, like sport, is a challenging environment – it’s the arena where we play out our own career aspirations. There is much we can learn from our sporting heroes including how much training and preparation they put in before an event – not only physical training but how seriously they take their rest and recuperation. They simply couldn’t perform at their peak 24/7 and in the business world, we would do well to remember that people need a healthy work-life balance to perform consistently at their best.
There is also the increasing realisation that an athlete’s mental health is critical to their physical health. For example, when Simone Biles – one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time – withdrew from certain events during the recent Tokyo Olympics.
Finally, there is the shared experience of watching sport, especially live. When we experience live events together it brings us closer. The sort of bonds that a work team needs when they face challenges such as high-growth periods or even a setback. From my research, I know that teams who have strong relationships are happier, more resilient and critically higher performing. They are also more creative as they can bounce ideas off each other, they are more productive as they don’t want to let each other down and they are a more loyal team – they want to stay and work together.
So, watching sport doesn’t have to be a distraction. It can help prepare us for the real challenges of work.
About the author: Nic Marks, CEO and Founder of Friday Pulse, is one of the UK’s top happiness experts and statisticians. He worked extensively in public policy and with many governments advising on how to measure and improve wellbeing. In 2010 he gave a popular TED talk on his policy work. Nic has worked with over 1,000 teams and organisations looking into the ingredients of good work and positive workplace cultures.