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Sports in the Workplace by Mark Robinson

What business presentation doesn’t use metaphors from sports? We are constantly talking about team building, achieving goals, hitting targets. That is probably because business and sport have a lot in common. Working together in pursuit of a common aim, doing better than the competition, coaching people to improve performance – these are all integral to both.

Drawing metaphors from the world of sport is very natural – but they can, of course, lose their freshness and become cliches. Our recent survey on some aspects of sport in the workplace found that “keep your eye on the ball” was a top choice of sports-inspired saying for one in five people – but one in three thought it was overused. Talking about the ball being in someone else’s court, taking things “down to the wire’ and warning against “dropping the ball” are also becoming hackneyed according to our survey.

And encouraging someone to “be a team player”, calling score and looking for a touchdown were also cited as wearied metaphors which could perhaps be due for a spell on the bench. This should encourage business leaders to reach for more unusual sporting metaphors – in a recent presentation I used a quote from Canadian ice-hocley player Wayne Gretzky “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

Our survey also looked at the effects of playing fantasy sport on workplace culture. For those who may be unfamiliar with this, it is a sort of small stakes betting forum. Everyone selects a few named players in a team-sport of their choice. You then track their performance in the real-life league across a season and whoever’s players score the highest total score wins. You can select your team and leave them to get on with it, or you can switch and trade.

Some Kimble staff across the US and in Europe play fantasy football. I don’t play it myself but those who do, say they enjoy it. They report that it can be an icebreaker, particularly for people who may be working across the same team but in different cities – when they meet in person they tend to chat about the ups and downs of their fantasy teams. The vast majority of respondents to the survey — 96% – said this kind of thing has either a positive or neutral effect on workplace culture, and I would agree with that – it is harmless fun.  A third said they felt it improved their relationships with colleagues, presumably because it gives them another interest in common. However a minority of people – one in ten – said they felt under pressure to join in and that would certainly be something to watch out for and discourage.

The survey also highlighted other sports-related issues – watching sport in work time or calling in sick because of sporting events. Of course, the majority of people would not consider doing either of those. For those who would put themselves in this category, my suggestion would always be to plan ahead. For instance, if you are a massive soccer fan and have worked out that the 2022 World Cup games will all take place during working hours – schedule some vacation to watch them. That’s going to provide a much better experience for both the individual who can enjoy the games without fear of losing their job, and for the work-team who won’t find themselves ‘left in the lurch”. (That’s a sporting metaphor which survives the game it came from).

As in many other areas of life, preparation makes all the difference. As the American football coach Paul Bear Bryant said: “It’s not the will to win that matters – it’s the will to prepare to win.”


Read the survey report here


And a blog about the importance of planning PTO here.