July 5, 2022 • Sponsored

The Athlete’s Mindset and the Habits of Social Emotional Learning: the Surprising Combo Behind Entrepreneurial Success

by Patrick Cook-Deegan

{Sponsored} The parallels between the habits of peak performing athletes and successful business people have been well and fully explored. Type “athlete” plus “business” or “entrepreneur” into Google’s search bar, and you’ll get thousands of hits because sports and business ventures share a simple common goal: defeat your competitors.

As a former all-American high school and college lacrosse player, and as the current founder and CEO of a six year-old startup, I can recite the corollaries chapter and verse. As a founder, I’ve drawn heavily from lessons I learned, habits I set, and mindsets I developed as an athlete.

But the longer I run my company, the more nuanced the “simple” act of winning becomes. To truly win, you need relational intelligence, social capacities, self-awareness, and a holistic sense of well-being and performance — organizationally, personally, and interpersonally.

To understand the magic behind this “winning” combination depends on two key terms, one from my life as an athlete and one from my life as the founder of an education design company: Peak Performance and Social Emotional Learning.

According to the American Psychological Association, Peak Performance is “performance of a task at the optimum level of an individual’s physical abilities, mental capabilities or both.” In other words, an excellent showing on game day.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

It turns out, I learned a lot of SEL lessons on the field. What’s more, many of them underwrote my moments for peak performance, I just wasn’t aware of them at the time.

So, rather than write the millionth article explaining why athletes succeed in business, I’m going to throw a curveball and share how to the best practices of an athlete combined with the greatest hits of social emotional awareness equip business leaders not only to sink every basket, but to win the long game of building healthy, thriving organizations.

#1: Fuel Your Work Ethic with Purpose

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the flashiest or most gifted athlete on the team. Like so many other players, my secret weapon was my work ethic.

But before you get to hustle and dedication, there must be a strong desire to dedicate to something bigger than yourself. In other words, you must have a sense of purpose. Purpose, according to Stanford University researcher Dr. Bill Damon, is the desire to accomplish something personally meaningful that’s also beneficial to the wider world.

As an athlete, my purpose starting in 8th grade was to become a Division 1 lacrosse player – it was my throughline that drove everything. My clarity of purpose made the unpleasant things — intense weight room sessions, 5 am runs, endless footwork drills, or picking up all the balls at the end of a tough practice — palatable and, sometimes, even enjoyable. They were all in the service of something bigger.

A strong sense of purpose is, in a way, a magic bullet. From there, you can much more easily commit yourself to the gruntwork. Getting crystal clear on my purpose served me well again when I was starting a company. In the early days of Wayfinder, there were multiple summers when I only slept 1-3 hours a night. It was our peak season and everything had to work perfectly for the org to survive (every entrepreneur knows this feeling).

Successfully launching a company depends entirely on long-term, consistent dedication, especially to the unsexy stuff. Having a strong and well-defined sense of purpose gives you all the fuel in the world to keep going without having to constantly question why.

#2: Prioritize Organizational Culture

As a captain in an athletic context, it’s your job to set the culture and get your teammates going. Without camaraderie, psychological safety, and a healthy flow of affirmation and acknowledgement mixed in with the exhortation to do better and push harder, even the most elite team of athletes can’t win. In high school, I thought yelling at people was all it took to motivate my teammates to do better. I later learned there are a variety of ways to motivate people. Pushing is one, but understanding different personal motivations and subtleties is the real key. In high school, with a poorly developed emotional intelligence, I missed that nuance.

At the beginning of COVID, I got my shot at a do over. For the first time in a century, schools closed. It was the middle of the selling season for us, and Wayfinder was on the brink of going out of business. It was bleak. We were lucky our team had invested 2+ years in deepening relationships before the crisis hit. So when it did, we rallied: folks took on new tasks, covered two jobs, and spent long nights calling customers. And, because I knew my team well, I know how to motivate each of them to push harder. Miraculously, we ended up growing 50% in COVID and the next fall, raising our first investment round.

There’s a famous leadership quote that says culture eats strategy for breakfast, which, in my experience, is absolutely true. Without those pre-crisis years of intentionally focusing on building good culture, we could never have rallied the way we did.

#3: Set a Clear Goal and Stick to It

In 2017, Wayfinder set a goal to double revenues every year for five years. It was an ambitious goal, but it was achievable and clear. Since then, with the exception of COVID, we have doubled sales every year, and made up our COVID year by tripling our sales last year.

Setting this goal with the company reminded me of the kinds of goals my teammates and I once set: make it to the playoffs, win the state championship, sweep nationals. Setting this goal during fall training was far from state championships in May. But the year we accomplished our goal, I could actually trace it back to the workouts we’d done the summer before, and to the hype we began building together, then.

Something athletes, coaches and great business leaders all have in common is the ability to motivate themselves intrinsically towards a long-term goal. This capacity is at the core of every human capable of pushing through obstacles in a healthy, sustainable way. Those running purely on extrinsic motivation tend to falter quickly.

Set a goal and, as my coaches would say, grind it out. There will be a point where the goal may need to evolve or change, but take it all the way to that point. Wayfinder is here today because we as a company lived by the advice “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” The magic comes when you’re barely hanging on to the knot. Pain is ok. Learn from it. Settle into it and figure out why it’s there. I understood through developing a meditation practice that you can breathe through pain away, much more than your brain thinks you can. Don’t listen to your first, second, or even third thoughts. Listen to your deeper driving motivation.

#4: Pace Yourself

In the film Any Given Sunday, Al Pacino as Coach Tony D’Amato gives one of the greatest motivational sports speeches of all time about the delicate nature of timing — ”Fighting for that inch.”

But his speech is just as applicable to business, and to life. Ultimately, it’s about developing a deeper understanding of the pace and cadence of the day and how each day fits into the realization of the bigger plan and your overarching strategy. Should you pace that plan out over the next five years, or does it require a short, all-out sprint followed by time to rest to recover?

You can’t show up as a sports coach or a business leader and push people to the brink every single day. It breeds burnout, frustration, and ultimately limits capacity. Good teammates and colleagues love to be pushed hard at the right times. They also respect a coach that can celebrate a victory or give them a moment to regroup after achieving their goal.

Understanding the significance of setting the right pace is critical for sustained growth. The job of a CEO is to set the right pace on any given Sunday. If pacing isn’t properly planned or maintained, a burnout week could lead to catastrophic decision-making in the following days.

Sports are the same. A game isn’t won in the first five minutes, and a runner who takes off sprinting in the beginning of a marathon isn’t going to place well. It’s not about looking good in a singular moment; it’s about winning in the end. Pace yourself.

#5: Learn to Thrive in Uncertainty

One of the main reasons sports are popular is because you don’t know what’s going to happen when players step on the field. It’s the uncertainty and the excitement that draws billions of fans to watch games. This is the life of a business leader too; you’re forced constantly to make tons of quick decisions you didn’t anticipate.

COVID served up a huge curveball for Wayfinder as it did for all of us. To keep the business from going under, we had to rework our whole model to make a digital product offering instead of a physical one. We had to move our trainings virtually. The plan was to win, it didn’t matter how. As any athlete knows, winning can happen a million different ways, most of which were not in the original gameplan.

At Wayfinder, we believe purpose guides all. In high school and college, my purpose was winning lacrosse games. Now, it’s building a world-class innovative education company, but the feeling is actually the same. That’s the beauty of purpose; if you can tap into the feeling of purpose with one thing, you can develop it later with another. And once you harness that, you’ll win.

Patrick Cook-Deegan is the Founder and CEO of Wayfinder. Wayfinder was born out of Patrick’s experience teaching high school students at a public school in Oakland, CA. During his time there, Patrick tried to find a curriculum that would help his students dive more deeply into their personal development and prepare them to lead meaningful lives. Unable to find a curriculum that landed with his students, he began developing his own as an education innovation fellow at Stanford’s d.school. He is a graduate of Brown University, and former Fulbright Scholar.