10 Rules for Business or Sport – from 30+ Years in Sport & Business

Part of what makes sport so special is the lessons they can teach us about being a high performer, teamwork, failure, and success that we can apply in our everyday lives.

In this case I’ve pulled together some of the best “rules” I’ve been exposed to that I think can help anyone think, feel, and perform better in life – whether that be in business, sport or your sports business.


Rule #1: Expect to Win

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

A surprising amount of our experience and performance is influenced by expectations – both those we have of ourselves, and those others have of us.

Evidence of this influence can be found in research on the Pygmalion Effect (when teachers expect a better or worse performance from students, those students tend to perform to those expectations), the Underdog Effect (expectations of credible others influence whether we see ourselves as an underdog or not), the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (when we believe something is likely to happen, we tend to behave in ways that bring that outcome about). There’s even some evidence to suggest that our default levels of happiness have mostly to do with minimizing the gap between what we expect and what we actually experience.

Expect to win points our expectations in exactly the right direction. Expectations serve as a great source of confidence and can guide our behaviour in complex, uncertain situations. They motivate and engage us. Expectations shape our beliefs and our entire experience of the sport.

If you want better outcomes for yourself personally and professionally, this is a simple rule to adopt that can make a huge impact.


Rule #2: Coach the Team You Have

In and out of sport, much of our individual success has to do with the success of the team of people around us. Even if you work on your own, the significant people in your life – your partner, family, and friends – have the ability to either lift you up or pull you down.

Ideally, we’re surrounded by people that consistently lift us up. But, for most of us grounded in reality, it’s more likely that our social circle is populated with a mixture of raving fans and supporters and the friend we’ve had since primary school but you don’t have that much in common in adult life. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t have any interest in replacing or removing that friend.

I’d rather help him help me better.

It’s not always that easy to replace your friends, and it’s certainly not easy to replace your family. Though we can choose to surround ourselves with different people and should probably consider making significant changes if the people in our lives don’t, won’t, or can’t accept us, putting this into play is actually much more challenging than it sounds. It involves breakups, testing new social spheres, hurt, lost love, and occasionally the loss of identity.

Rather than put yourself through that (acknowledging that there may be times when that’s the best course of action), why not just coach the team you have?

In sports, the full rule is “coach the team you have, not the team you want.” The genesis of this rule is the mistake coaches make when trying to force their system of play onto a group of players that simply can’t execute in the way the system was designed. The end result is underperformance, with players unhappy and out of position.

The same can be true of our personal lives.  We often have a prescribed set of rules (a system) we’d like our friends, family, and partner to live by. Rather than making these rules explicit or talking about whether or not these people are actually capable of abiding by those rules and playing their roles, we harbor resentment and disappointment when people don’t meet our expectations.

The alternative is to coach the team you have.

That means that, rather than forcing people or players to act within your system, you help the people in your life understand how to best perform for you. That means helping them understand who you are, what you value, what you need, and how you can best be supported. At work, it means helping your colleagues understand how to best work with you, and for you to understand how they best work so that you can maximise the collaboration. At home, it means helping the significant people in your life appreciate your needs and reciprocating in a way that best meets their needs.

You may not need a new team. Just coach the team you have.


Rule #3: Leave It Better than You Found It

I love this rule because it applies to basically every role we play in our lives that is temporary or transient… which, it turns out to be, is most of them.

Take your business or job as an example.

Too often we mistakenly wrap our identity up in our profession. Work becomes a place where we pursue our own goals and agenda, mostly in service of seeking some higher status and better resources for ourselves. People rarely do this with ill intention – it’s just natural human dominance hierarchies. The problem is, though, that once the job ends or you don’t own that business any more – and it almost always does – our absence ends up creating a mess.

The alternative is to focus on leaving it better than you found it.

That means focusing your time and energy on improving the environment you’re in, doing your job to the best of your ability, and lifting up those around you. It means putting quality and the team’s goals over your own goals. Leaving it better than you found it means making sure that, on your exit, people are set up for success, with no mess to clean up.

This approach tends to align much more closely with our values than does the individualistic pursuit of our own goals. At the end of our lives, we’d rather be known as caring, good team players who made other people better than ruthless individualists who focused only on what they could get from the world and not what they could give.

Yet in our day to day, we often succumb to the pressure to put ourselves first. We focus narrowly on what we want, and not on what will make the world we live in better. We prioritize our own needs over the needs and values of our tribe or team.

Our world would be much richer, our relationships more meaningful, and our performance much better if we shifted the focus from what we want to what we can give. With an emphasis on leaving the world better than we found it, we’re in a position to live our values to the fullest and to make a meaningful impact on the people around us.


Rule #4: Winning Doesn’t Care About You

What I like about this rule is that it quickly debunks the concept of “what we deserve.” We have a tendency to believe that if we’re a good person and we do our best, that good things will happen.

What sport teaches us is that, without some hard work and a whole lot of luck, the things we’re working toward are just as likely to slip through our fingers as they are to land squarely in our palms.

Though this can be a tough truth, it orients us toward the things we can control – things like attitude, effort, focus, and doing our best. Winning isn’t guaranteed, but losing is almost certainly guaranteed if we don’t put in the effort to pursue something we really care about.

If you want to do anything meaningful, you have to be willing to work for it with no guarantees that it’ll happen. Hard work doesn’t guarantee your success, but it increases the odds significantly. Being a good person doesn’t mean only good things will happen to you, but it increases the odds significantly. And when things don’t go your way, it’s not a sign that something’s wrong with you or with your approach – it’s just being faced with this reality.

Winning doesn’t care about you.

So why chase this thing called winning? Because if you don’t, the only thing that’s guaranteed in life if you don’t chase it, is losing.


Rule #5: Cheer from the Bench

We’re all the stars of our own lives, which means we’re susceptible to missing the pretty cool things the people around us are able to accomplish. When you do catch someone doing something special, as a leader, partner, or friend, you typically have three options:

You can ignore it and act like it didn’t happen (I don’t recommend this path)

You can extend congratulations like at the end of a sporting event, where the two teams stand in line, shake hands and give each other a pat on the back

You can cheer from the bench

How you show up in these moments matters. People are reluctant to make a big deal of what they accomplish so someone else needs to do it for them. That someone should be you.

Cheering from the bench means celebrating, in significant ways, the achievements of those around you that are important to you. Yet, you’d be surprised at the number of players who have to be reminded to cheer for their teammates.

Don’t be that person.

Cheer from the bench.


Rule #6: Point to the Assist 

When you make a basket, you point to the player who threw the pass. That applies to not just basketball, but everything we do. No one makes it through life without lots of assists.” – Dean Smith

Michael Jordan’s college basketball coach Dean Smith used to have his scoring players point to the assist after a made basket. This simple gesture went a long way toward acknowledging the fact that the person being recognised didn’t do it alone. It meant sharing in the success and recognising all that goes into any one individual accomplishment.

It’s since become a universal sign of teamwork.

In your own life, how much do you acknowledge what the people around you do to help you win? How do you recognise them and give them credit?

Point to the assist is about both recognition and gratitude. It’s an expression of appreciation and an acknowledgment of commitment and excellence. It’s a sign that you’re a part of the success.

Point to the assist.


Rule #7: Do Your Job Well

This one is pretty straightforward.

It sounds simple, but in the day-to-day grind of life, it can be easy to let the basics fall through the cracks. Do your job well is about staying true to the fundamentals and what’s been asked of you, and doing it to the fullest of your ability. It’s about not clocking out early, finishing what you start, and playing your role with quality.

You don’t have to do anything flashy. You don’t even need to do more than what was asked of you. If you and your teammates just take care of the basics and do your job well, you can win.


Rule #8: Let Your Values Be the Bad Guy 

This rule is about what you do if your teammates aren’t taking care of the basics.

The common approach to dealing with a teammate who isn’t pulling their weight is to engage in a bunch of unhelpful (and sometimes counteractive) behaviour. We criticize, talk behind their backs, complain, or ostracise.

The alternative is to let your values be the bad guy.

On any team, there is a set of guiding principles or characteristics that people have agreed to, either implicitly or explicitly. When someone isn’t pulling their weight, the reference should not be to the quality of their character, but to the misalignment between their behaviour and the values we’ve agreed upon.

Rather than turning it into a confrontation, a simple statement of, “this isn’t how we do it here” or “we agreed to this, and your current behaviour is not aligned with that” can be enough to help someone reconnect to the values and purpose of the team. Once that happens, they tend to fall back in line.

It doesn’t have to come to blows or the start of silent treatment.

You can just let your values be the bad guy.


Rule #9: Culture Can’t Win You a Premiership… but it can Cost You One

Culture isn’t going to win you 20+ games and a finals series. It’s not going to push you through a single elimination game, win you the match point, or break out of your slump. It’s not going to hoist the trophy at the end of the season.

But the lack of culture, or a bad culture, could cost you the chance at any of that.

To accomplish anything significant as a team, you need more than just a good culture. You need the right people in the right position, strong leadership, talent, interpersonal skills, good relationships, hard work, practice, development… the list goes on and on. A good culture, by itself, won’t cross the finish line for you.

But a bad culture can ensure you don’t even get started.

Sports discussions often emphasise the concept of “dynasties” and attribute their success to team culture. Examples led by coaches like Alastair Clarkson in AFL or the strong team culture built by Tim Sheens during the era of the Wests Tigers rugby league team are frequently cited.

However, it is important to recognise that dynasties are not built solely on culture. The presence of exceptional athletes like Lionel Messi in soccer, LeBron James in basketball, or Tom Brady in American football has been instrumental in the success of their teams. These athletes bring exceptional talent, unparalleled skills, and a tremendous work ethic that sets them apart.

In an Australian context, we can look at dynasties like the Brisbane Lions in AFL with champion players such as Michael Voss, Simon Black, and Jonathan Brown. Similarly, the dominance of the Australian cricket team in the early 2000s was fuelled by exceptional talents like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting, and Adam Gilchrist.

No discussions about the Sydney Swans in AFL would be complete without mentioning the contributions of Adam Goodes, Barry Hall, and Paul Kelly. Similarly, the successes of the Australian netball team owe a great deal to remarkable players like Liz Ellis, Sharelle McMahon, and Catherine Cox.

Culture is held up as a cause of success, but it’s not out there shooting shots and winning games. What it’s doing is creating conditions that allow these elite performers to emerge. And without those conditions, none of these teams could achieve their full potential.

Don’t expect culture to win you games or bring about your outcomes. You need talent, hard work, and luck to do that (and then some). But if you don’t attend to culture, it’ll cost you.


Rule #10: Own Your Outcomes

The only way you can get better at anything is by first owning your results. That means accepting failure or defeat and wins or success. It means learning to see yourself as connected to the cause and taking responsibility for what happens under your watch. From a place of ownership, you can be empowered to make things better.

While some psychological theories might encourage us to attribute failure to external, unstable causes, a more powerful approach is to see yourself as intimately linked to what happens in your life. When you fail, the focus shouldn’t be on all the external factors that contribute – the late-night flight, the bad referee, the pre-game meal; the screaming toddler, the lack of sleep, the belittling boss – but on what we could do differently next time to improve.

Improvement starts with ownership.

When you’re working toward something and own your outcomes, you’re taking steps toward success.

There’s good days, bad days, some days you are able to be successful, some days you’re not. Some days it’s your turn, some days it’s not your turn… you don’t always win… we’re going to come back next year, try to be better, try to build good habits, try to play better.

The viral clip of basketballer Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the most recent (great) example of having this outlook on life – own your outcomes.


Brendan Denning

The Captain Coach