Both of my kids compete in squash tournaments. As a sport, and at their relatively young ages, these tournaments are brutal and super competitive--and seeing kids cry on and off the court is normal. Squash is played in a glass box, where single players compete against another person, surrounded by an audience. This weekend, my 9-year-old played in a squash tournament.
As I watched the children compete, I found myself thinking about how this process tied into some broader concepts of entrepreneurship, and the pressures leaders often face in front of their own audiences (stakeholders, employees, investors and the like). Here are four takeaways that entrepreneurs can learn from squash:
1. Loss and Rejection Build Resilience
My son got crushed the first day of the tournament, losing badly to players he'd beaten before. In one instance, he left the court and I could see him fighting back tears. As his mom, this broke my heart as he'd be practicing SO hard. I thought how unfair life can be sometimes, and how I sometimes break down in tears as well. But I was floored when a few minutes later, my son came over to me and shared how he was looking ahead to playing his next tournament, and what his winning strategy would be for Day 2. He fell, he got up, and was ready to fight--already at 9 years old, this sport has taught him resilience.
Startup land is an emotional rollercoaster. One day you feel on top of the world--the next, you experience the loss or rejection of a key client, partner or investor. But for every 10 rejections, there will be ONE believer--and that is all you need. Do not give up looking for this one champion. Rejections hurt, but it's important that you acknowledge that it sucks, take a deep breath and move on.
2. Mental Strength and a Positive Mindset Are Key
Squash is as much a mental game as it is a physical sport. You have to be in the right mindset. You have stay calm under pressure and stay focused on the CURRENT point. If you let your mind jump ahead to the future, (i.e. thinking about winning or losing this game or closing out the match) or slip back to the past (i.e. the last point or game) you'll end up getting yourself too uptight and distracted to play well.
You have to believe in yourself and have the self-confidence to play your own game, rather than your opponent's when you are under pressure. You have to be able to handle last minute negativity and self-doubts.
Sound familiar? Self-doubts are much too common with entrepreneurs, and especially so for female entrepreneurs. One has to learn to channel this stress into positive energy.
3. Learn From Your Mistakes
One of the key things my son has learned from squash is the ability to rebound quickly from his mistakes and not carry them into the next point or game.
After every match, if he won and especially if he lost, my son now knows to reflect on what he can do better the next time. What worked? What could be better? There's always an opportunity to tweak a shot, or the movement, or the strategy, to try and make for a better outcome. Ditto with startups--perhaps there's an element missing in your pitch that could make it that much more compelling. Or perhaps you could approach sales in a different way.
4. It Takes a Village
Being on the squash court with just you against your opponent can feel so lonely (versus a team sport where the attention is on all of the team). Sometimes, being a founder or CEO can feel the same way too. Some days, it may feel like it's you against the world. But if you look closely, success in squash takes a team--it takes a village. My son's coaches, his peers who are often at these tournaments and will hang out between matches, his friends who cheer him on, and--always--me.
A startup can feel lonely, but it takes a village too. Your team, your partners, your investors, your mentors; these are all people who believe. Don't underestimate the importance of those people.
The Bottom Line
Startups can feel a lot like being all by yourself in a glass box, with the world watching to see how well you will perform. But no matter how well the game is played, it doesn't have to be--and won't be--a perfect match every time. Putting yourself out there is the first step. But building your resilience, staying positive, and learning from your mistakes are all critical for success--all of which can only happen with practice. Also, never forget your network of people behind you: when you turn around, they are the ones watching most intently, and who are cheering you on to win.