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The Red Roses: 5 lessons for every business owner from the world of elite sport

In February, O2 Business and Enterprise Nation hosted Accelerate 2019, an inspiring one-day event designed to help SMEs and start-ups to scale their business and perform at the highest level.

For many, the highlight was hearing from the Red Roses, England’s phenomenally successful Six Nations Grand Slam winning Women’s Rugby Team. Three members of the squad – Vickii Cornborough, Shaunagh Brown and Sarah McKenna – joined Enterprise Nation’s founder, Emma Jones, on stage to talk about the parallels between business and elite sport.

Here are five lessons from the world of elite sport that apply to any scaling business:


1. Keep an eye on the bigger picture

The Red Roses were midway through their Six Nations campaign at the time of the event, and were still on course to be champions. (They dominated the 2019 Women’s Six Nations campaign in 2019 tournament, scoring 20 points from a possible 20 and ending with their 80-0 triumph over Scotland in the final round.) With success on this scale, what do the players do to stay focused and avoid becoming complacent?

For Sarah McKenna, it’s about taking every game as it comes and keeping your eye on the end goal.

“You have to keep in mind what you are working towards. We may have won the Grand Slam, but we’re already focused on the summer tour ahead, and the challenges we’ll face. It’s also good to remember that as a team, you’re only ever judged on your most recent performance.”

The same mentality is valuable in business. Sure, you can celebrate the contract you have just won or the funding that you have secured. But your growth depends on setting goals and remaining focused on where your business will be next month, in six months’ time or next year.


2. Be mentally fit and prepared

The England Women’s Rugby team only turned professional in January this year, so some members of the squad still have a business or profession alongside their commitment to rugby. So how does managing the competing pressures of two careers affect the players’ mental agility? Vickii Cornborough says that it is something she learned from an early age:

“Most of us started playing rugby when we were very young, so we got used to juggling the competing demands of sport and school work. It taught me to handle stress and pressure as I grew up – so maintaining a career outside rugby actually came pretty easily to me.”

The entrepreneurs behind start-ups and growing businesses require lots of energy, as well as the ability to manage multiple, competing pressures and remain calm under pressure. These skills come naturally to a lot of entrepreneurs, but they can be learned, so consider whether you need coaching or training in:

  • Delegation
  • Time management and prioritisation
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Productivity tools and techniques (e.g. mind mapping; sprint planning; collaboration)


3. Establish a supportive back office

A point of difference between business and rugby is that all the members of the team have one thing in common: their playing career is relatively short. So it comes naturally to try and make every single performance count, as Sarah McKenna points out:

“We know that we must do whatever it takes to be the best we can be. It’s the choice we’ve made, and it has meant some sacrifices along the way. Our friends and family know how important it is for us and understand when we miss a wedding or party.”

In fact there is almost always a strong and supportive family behind each player, just as there often is with a start-up or growing business. Many entrepreneurs attribute their success to having a supportive partner or family behind them who understand the sacrifices needed to accommodate the lifestyle they have chosen.


4. Recognise that we’re all different

Just like the people that a business employs, the players respond to feedback, criticism and coaching in different ways. For example, Shaunagh Brown thrives from direct and unambiguous instruction:

“I am a quick learner and enjoy being coached. But I learn best on the pitch, rather than off it.
Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”

Shaunagh’s teammates know this of her and respond accordingly. As a full-back, however, Sarah McKenna has an entirely different perspective:

“From the back of the pitch I tend to see gaps in the field of play that are not being exploited. I’m switched on by feeding through what I can see and staying focused on the bigger picture.”

Business owners also need to be aware of what motivates each member of their team, and how they respond to different communication styles.


5. Take little steps

Vickii Cornborough has a psychology degree and is an IT Business Development Manager when she is not on the rugby pitch. In both her careers she sees the benefits that come from taking small, incremental steps:

“It’s often easier to improve the performance of a business by making a number of modest changes rather than one substantial one. It’s exactly the same in my rugby career, where I can improve my own game by making small tactical changes to my game, diet and fitness regime.”

Growing your business through a number of simple, incremental steps may prove easier than focusing all your efforts on a new product launch, or securing one sizeable new contract. So what small steps or changes could you make?


We run regular #ScaleUp events throughout the year with our partner Enterprise Nation. If you see 2019 as your year for growth, check out these upcoming events.

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