The world’s most watched sporting event – FIFA World Cup 2018 – is about to begin on June 14. Almost three billion spectators worldwide are expected to watch as a month of fierce competition unfolds. As we prepare to cheer on our favourite teams, what can we learn from elite football players and national teams competing at the World Cup? Read on for valuable lessons that your small business can learn from football.

Personal Qualities

Whether it’s losing a client or the World Cup final, you must retain the ability to bounce back and overcome disappointment. In fact, top performers know that success can sometimes be rooted in failure. Consider Cristiano Ronaldo, despite being one of the most prolific goalscorers of the current era, he doesn’t score on every shot he takes. Last November saw Ronaldo score the most goals in the Champions League with only a 2.5% shot conversion rate.[1] Cristiano may just be thinking what Michael Jordan once said about his own shotmaking.

Elite sportsmen understand the value of physical fitness not only for developing particular abilities but for increasing their overall performance. Perhaps in business, as well as in sports, our physical traits may help us to cope with demanding work. Global tech giant Google has shifted its corporate culture to reflect this by incorporating treadmill desks on campuses and having lunchtime sports clubs.[2] And everyone knows the best accountants all cycle to their client meetings.

Football team on a pitch

Playing as a Team

Individual performance is clearly important. However, a lesson from football that you can take with you to the office tomorrow should be team play. The success of great football teams comes from everyone fulfilling their assigned duties, and performance depends on the efforts of everyone on the team. It has been proven that in team sports having talented individuals is not enough and it can backfire as having ‘too much talent’. Consider Leicester City’s roster and their 2016 Premier League’s triumph. Described as a team of “bargain buys and cast-offs” Leicester shocked the football world when it won the Premier League’s title having faced relegation odds the season before.

The World Cup Qualifying matches also highlight that teams with a broader mix of individual abilities win more games as they are more likely to evenly distribute the tasks. As Grant points out in his TED talk, it is the humility and modesty of role players who do important tasks that stars often see as beneath them.[3] Remember, someone has to push the piano onto the stage for it to be played by the maestro.

Our assumption that true intelligence resides only in individuals and therefore finding the right consultant or the right CEO could make all the difference for business points to our bias towards individual rather than group expertise. James Surowiecki in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” details how more diverse teams with various talents and contributions tend to outperform groups with high levels of expertise in similar areas. Studies performed by Scott Page and James G. March prove that adding a few people to the team who know less but have a different set of skills improve the team’s overall performance as they are bringing more diverse ideas to the table (Surowiecki, 31).

World Cup Football Statistics 2010 and 2014

Adam Grant (2018) The Best Teams Have This Secret Weapon

Panama and Iceland

In this year’s FIFA World Cup as in any area of business, there are newcomers to keep an eye on. Panama and Iceland, both tiny countries, are making their first appearance at a World Cup. In fact, Iceland – a country of just 350 000 people – is the smallest nation in history to make the World Cup finals. Although it is difficult to predict their performance in the upcoming tournament, if Greece could beat the 150-1 odds to triumph at Euro 2004, underdogs must surely be accounted for.[4]

Underdogs have a mindset that anyone willing to grow their business or advance in their career needs to adopt. Have a vision and play as if you need to prove something. People are thought to possess one of two mindsets: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.[5] A fixed mindset assumes permanence, whereas adopting a growth mindset encourages us to constantly improve. It is the feeling that you are not good enough at something…yet, and will strive to improve even after you have achieved success. It prevents success from blinding our vision and makes us believe that we too can conquer impossible odds, be it on a football pitch or in a boardroom.

Germany, Brazil, and Spain

Team Germany fans - girl standing next to a horse

At the end of the tournament, a winner will be crowned. Germany, Spain, and Brazil are the most likely teams to raise the World Cup Trophy; so what can we learn from the expected winners?

What these football nations have in common is a large pool of talented players competing at an international level and playing for the world’s best teams. Talent nurtures talent. Surrounded by international superstars, players constantly evolve and have the winner’s mentality. Spain, Brazil and Germany ‘export’ their players and when it is time to gather their national team, these countries reap the benefits every four years.

This sets them apart from countries like Russia where almost everyone plays for the local teams: CSKA Moscow, Zenit St.Petersburg, and FC Krasnodar, to name a few. Their home resources, however, fall short and fail to deliver the performance of top teams. So; diversify, export, cross boundaries, it can do you good.

In sport, there is a huge emphasis on preparation and planning, and the business world can learn a lot through reducing its obsession with ‘doing’ at the expense of planning. Another non-football quote – this time attributed to Abraham Lincoln – reminds us to reconsider the balance between properly planning and preparing for a task…and doing it.  The fact that major sports tournaments take place every four years speaks volumes about the need for long-term preparation and a string of consistent performances. Of all the leading European countries, it is Germany’s consistency in reaching the latter stages of major tournaments that is worthy of admiration and replication. Having made it to 13 semi-finals in 20 World Cups, their solid, consistent performance is what separates the very best in every sport from the rest.

Coach your team for success, build it around passionate players, show up early for practice, prepare for each match and let the best team win.

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[1] There’s a new damning stat about Cristiano Ronaldo’s season which shows just how under par he has been | Dream Team. (2017)

[2] What Companies Use Treadmill Desks? | Rebel desk. (2016)

[3] Adam Grant, The Best Teams Have This Secret Weapon | TED, YouTube. (2018)

[4] Phil McNulty, Greece Defy the Odds at Euro 2004 | BBC UK Football.(2004)

[5] Tim Elmore, Why You Should Always Play Like the Underdog | Huffington Post (2014)

Surowiecki, James. The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few (Abacus: London, 2005), pp. 30-38