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What Do Olympians & Entrepreneurs Have in Common? Obsession

This former pro volleyball player's first lesson in business came from competing against Olympic athletes. Here's her story.

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When I graduated from college, my parents told everyone I was applying to law school. In reality, I was moving to Los Angeles to play professional beach volleyball. When I announced this new plan to friends and family, they all thought I was on my way to a nervous breakdown. 

I was an unlikely candidate for the pro beach tour. I grew up in the Midwest where there were few beaches, let alone beach volleyball. I went to a division three school, but I was only on the team because I was the tallest girl in the freshman class. 

But you know what? Life on the tour actually paved the way for the rest of my professional success. Here's why. 

I was, by far, the hardest worker on the pro beach tour. Because I had to be. The rest of the women played division one volleyball and beach ball in the summer. I made up for about five years in two years by playing all day, with anyone I could find, and drilling, against a wall at night when it was too dark to play. Other women played smart. I wasn't there yet. So I played incessantly. 

Finding out the hard way

It took me three years of playing to get on the tour.  In the pro beach tour, like in tennis, everyone knows everyone else's rank. My highest rank was #25, but I still ended up playing the top players, most of whom were reigning Olympic champions (There isn't a playoff for the Olympic beach volleyball team; the top ranked players go to the Olympics.).

At this level, to be clear, it's all psychological. Every woman on the tour is in absolutely incredible athletic shape, and each has the athletic skills to win the tour. Every woman knows what she needs to do to win that week. Few women have the mental capacity to deliver, shot after shot after shot. Elite sports is about your mental game.

Here's where I couldn't hack it: I hated crushing my opponent. It was not fun. So I would let them back in the game. My team hated me for this. I noticed that the Olympic team has no problem shutting me out--insider lingo for not allowing me to score even once. For them, every point was the last point in the Olympic finals. That's how seriously they played. 

For me, it was about process rather than outcome. I noticed that I was more interested in having a life of routine -- drill after drill, day after day, with specific goals that I met by executing my plan.

There are some situations in life where process is what matters. Getting onto the pro tour, for example. It was all about diligence and commitment. But once you're there, if you are going to win you have to want to win more than anything else in the world. 

I didn't. I like to read. I like ideas. I hated traveling each week to a different tournament location. I was not friendly when fans asked me to sign their programs, or their chests. Yes, really, their chests.

Go big or go home

So you know what I learned from playing our Olympic team? You can't win big unless it means everything to you. Psychologically, you have to be absolutely obsessed with winning or you won't do it. 

I see this in the start-up world. I have had three start-ups. In each case I've been absolutely obsessed with seeing it through to funding and getting my idea off the ground. 

There have been times when the start-up was destroying my life, and the lives of those around me, and, for better or worse, my singular focus and insistence on winning is what got the company through to the next round. 

I don't have the tenacity to be an Olympic athlete, but my experience playing against those athletes makes it so clear to me that we can each be a big winner if we find the spot in the world where we do have that tenacity. 

There was a time when I thought those women who were killing me each week were insane for caring so much. And there was a time I thought I was inane for putting my family through hell for my startup. Now I see that on some level, that drive to win no matter what will always look insane. But it's the only way to get outsized results from your efforts.

 

IMAGE: Flickr/MagPhoto2011
Last updated: Jul 11, 2012

PENELOPE TRUNK is the founder of three VC-funded startups. She is the author of the bestselling book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, and her blog, penelopetrunk.com, receives about one million views a month. Earlier in her life Penelope played professional beach volleyball, which, believe it or not, taught her just about everything she needed to know about marketing.




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