Business Lessons from a Triathlon

Photo: wsfurlan

I competed in my first triathlon in the summer of 2010. Though I have significant experience in competitive swimming and track plus a fair amount recreational cycling and the race was a beginner-friendly, female-only, short-distance event, I found that there was much to learn about combining three sports (swim, bike, and run) in one event.

Many of these lessons apply to business:

Focus and Agility Are Essential

Proper focus in racing is so well-touted that mentioning it may seem like a cliché. But the mental component of triathlon is magnified compared to an individual sport. Dealing with multiple but interrelated components (swim, transition from swim to bike, bike, transition from bike to run, and run — plus nutrition, hydration, and pacing) can be unnerving.

Very often business success is dependent on greatness at a core competency, but a high level of performance also requires strength in multiple disciplines. Being able to focus on a critical area and the agility to switch that focus effortlessly are keys to excellence.

Old Rules Don’t Apply

Oddly, rules relevant to individual sports were contrary to the rules of this sprint-distance triathlon. For example, participants were not required to touch the wall in the last length of the swim but told to exit the pool on a ladder before reaching the lane’s end. Even as the race was in progress, participants with a competitive swim background discussed this nuance, one finally convincing the others to break the swim-only rule by explaining that there was no touch sensor at the lane finish. The bike portion was also very different from recreational outings in which my teammates and I alternatively pull and draft each other; such actions would lead to disqualification in triathlons.

Sorting through all these differences was a challenge for me. I cautioned myself to avoid making assumptions about any aspect of the race, and instead seek out and interpret new rules.

As business owners, we often have fixed ideas about how we should reach, cultivate, and engage customers. We need to remember that while ethics are unchanging, arbitrary rules can be ignored without negative consequences. In fact, discerning essential rules only can boost results.

Details Matter

Elite athletes know that split seconds can make the difference between status as a world champion and a tenth-place finish. Even a few seconds in community races can make a significant difference in final standings.

By attending a special training session, I learned about the ladder-exit instruction pertaining to the swim portion, which saved me 30 seconds or so. My personal experience told me that riding my road bike rather than my hybrid would give me an edge in minutes during the cycling portion. However, I think I could have improved my performance had I worn a tri-suit and race belt rather than more traditional gear and ignored volunteers who shouted general instructions to all participants.

Customers, employees, and investors often notice details that affect their decisions to choose your business over competitors. Understanding what details are significant (and require resources) and which can be safely ignored can differentiate average performers from stellar ones.

Coaching Can Address Specific Areas of Concern

I joined a group training program led by a certified coach. He designed a custom training plan, led group workout sessions and transition clinics, and answered loads of questions. Having access to an expert (who also had firsthand racing experience) was helpful.

Coaches can guide first-timers and more experienced competitors, giving both basic and advanced insights, demonstrating methods of overcoming weaknesses, advising on realistic goals, and focusing efforts on training techniques that will yield specific results.

Businesses can benefit from outside expertise, including those who can address well-defined needs. Before contacting a coach or consultant, consider what you hope to accomplish through the engagement; for example, enlist assistance to enter a new market segment, deal with a problem, or streamline effective but inefficient processes.

Competition Is Fierce

There were many participants in this beginner-friendly race who barely finished. Nevertheless, competition for top spots is fierce. No matter how fit and nimble you are, unless you train and compete at the elite level, average performance is generally much higher than anticipated.

The depth of competition is frustrating but inspiring. Seeing what others accomplish raises the bar and motivates us to greater excellence. These revelations can force us to candidly evaluate our capabilities, strengths, and areas needing improvement and ideally, provide impetus for discovering the niche in which we can rank #1.

Strategic Plans Can Guide Us in High-Pressure Situations

To develop a race strategy that tapped my strengths and dealt with my weaknesses, I practiced the bike-and-run route, noting major hills, slight grades, and flat sections. The pool wasn’t available to me until the day of the event, but I did practice swimming under ropes to change lanes after each length as dictated by the event rules (longer-distance events involve open-water swims, but the swim portion of this event took place in an indoor pool).

Knowing what to do at each juncture can eliminate last-minute, unnecessary, and destructive changes to a master business plan. Anticipating predictable problems stems panic when difficulties are encountered. Planning may seem to detract from spontaneity, diminishing the fun factor during the event. A plan should lead to better results. A strong finish can be relished forever.

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