It's that time of year again - that murky middle ground period between the preparation for and the official start of a sports season, in this case the NFL. Hordes of face-painted fanatics have been readying to fill stadiums and sofas to cheer on their favorite teams since the last season ended. And many players too have been itching for months now to play their hearts out for their fans. Preparation, planning, and prognosticating have all come into play, but for the diehards, those things are just the warm up. For them, the game is what it's all about.

But that isn't the case for everyone. In fact for a growing number of players and team owners it's the exact opposite. There's reason to be concerned and a lesson to be learned - one that applies to far more than the world of sports.

A Harbinger Of Confused Priority

Though the regular season doesn't officially start until September, these days the run up begins months ahead of that with what the teams call mini camps. Basically they're warm-up sessions. And when they begin the profusion of cable sports channels are awash with video footage of players mostly standing around, talking or stretching, occasionally running a quick route or lobbing a short pass. Some have called it a waste. But most players and coaches will tell you that this is where it all begins -team building, reassessing the last season, and dreaming and aspiring to the season ahead. Though they may not represent the hardest workouts, these mini camps are important and represent 3 key factors for success in this game or any game: Play, Perspective, and Progress. At least that's how the players and coaches who show up see it.

In stark contrast, a growing number of star players chose not to show up this past spring. What reason do they give? One word: business.

The Game, The Business, And Which Comes First

Professional sports is a business. It's a business for the teams. They hire players and coaches, maintain stadiums, market to would be ticket and merchandise buyers, and compulsively look for ways to offset those costs. (A $10.75 beer at the Oakland Raiders' Alemeda Coliseum is one example.) It's a business for the players too. According to the NFL Players Association, the average career of a player in league is about 3.3 years. The NFL claims it's closer to 6, but it's a difference without distinction. The bottom line is players need to maximize their earnings as fast as they can, and one way they attempt to do so is by sitting out mini camp. It's a negotiating tactic with two goals, to make their absence felt and to minimize injury, both of which theoretically raise a player's value. On the other side of the negotiation, team owners cajole, threaten, and grumble, hoping to push players back onto the field as soon as possible. And increasingly, what begins in spring mini camps now stretches far into the summer and preseason training.

This posturing and playing business isn't inherently wrong - that is, until it causes owners and players to lose their perspective and the point. The point is this: business and the game are both important. In many ways they are symbiotic and must work hand in hand. But when you forget which one serves the other, you risk losing on both fronts. No matter your playing field, the game comes first.

Whatever the sector in which you ply your trade, business is a critical element. Even good nonprofits know that 'no profit' means your odds of being around to fight the good fight another day effectively drop to zero. Bluntly stated, business matters. That said, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that business always supports the greater game.

No matter the market, business isn't what gets any entity going in the first place. Ideas do that. Business isn't why people buy what you're hawking either. It's the value they see in what you offer that moves them. And business, along with the transactions that help facilitate it, isn't what keeps people coming back. What does?

What keeps us all coming back is the game and those things we associate with it: joy, novelty, and the promise of something better or greater. Whether you serve sports enthusiasts, gamers, or grocery shoppers, that's what your customers really want. In an honest moment you'll recognize that the game is what keeps you coming back too. It's the game that gets you up each day, drives your ideas and inquiries about how to improve, and yields a reward ultimately greater and more important than paychecks and profit - greater, in part, because it enables both and much more.

Keeping Success On Track

It's really easy to lose your way, to get caught up in the business aspect of what you do and lose sight of the larger game. How do you change that? Consider periodically running a mini camp in your mind. When you do, focus on those 3 Ps that make these camps valuable even vital: play, perspective, and progress.

Play is far less about performing at your highest ability, and far more about true play - as in playfulness, experimentation, trial and error, and fun. When play is regularly a part of what you do, the odds of gaining the perspective you need skyrockets. With play comes perspective - that step back view that allows thinking, culture, and more to shift with the changing environment around you. In the absence of play and perspective, true progress is darn hard to achieve. With them, the paths to progress multiply. Toss that one around for a bit and get your head back in the game.