Can the Determination That Drives Great Athletes Be Taught to Entrepreneurs?

Is the determination that drives great athletes similar to the determination that drives successful entrepreneurs… and can core values like determination be taught? There is no doubt that great athletes are born with natural abilities but I’m not talking about natural ability or even the skills learned from good coaching. I’m talking about core values like their unbounded determination to win, that differentiates a great athlete and separates great athletes from merely good athletes. Values like determination, risk taking, and the ability to overcome obstacles that move great athletes ahead of the competition. Many athletes develop skills and become good at their game but lack the drive needed to make them great… just as in business, where there are good managers who seem to lack the drive that could turn them into successful entrepreneurs. An athlete’s desire to win can be seen in the determination they bring to their game. In most of the motivational sports stories we hear it’s hard to tell where the athletes skills end and their determination to win begins. To understand how an entrepreneur might apply these same values we need to separate the athlete’s technical skills and natural ability from the core values that drive him.

We’ve all heard stories about athletes who overcome great obstacles to achieve their goal. Unfortunately, when you hear these stories you only hear about a small part of the athletes life. That is the reason these stories often leave you feeling that something is missing… sports stories tend to be “cliff hangers” that don’t tell you what happened to the athlete later in life. You hear how the athlete accomplishes their immediate goal but you’re left to wonder what will become of his life once he moves beyond the sports arena. The implied ending in most sports stories is that the athlete will go on to achieve other great things in life but we know that is not always the case. Because the story is limited to his success on the court, you can’t tell whether his success was due solely to his athletic skills or to the determination that drove him. To gain insight into the role values like determination played we have to see what happens to his life after his athletes skills fade. Will his determination to succeed bring him new accomplishments in other areas? We know that some athletes go on to find great second careers in business while others, sadly, never find further success in life and some even fall to crime once their athletic careers end. What are the core values that continue to drive some athletes forward and enables them to succeed later in life? These are the values we want entrepreneurs to learn.

And while we are missing the end of most sports stories, we may also be missing the beginning. Where did the athlete learn the values that brought his success? Like all of his teammates he may have started learning skills in youth sports and may have had the benefit of dedicated coaches in school. But what gave him that “fire in the belly” that others didn’t have? Why is that determination there for one person but not for another? Are these the same values that drive some people to escape poor environments and overcome their circumstances while others succumb to their environment? Somewhere in the athletes life he chose to follow a path to success and learned the values he would need to achieve greatness. We hear about an athletes determination but rarely hear the part of the story that tells us where he learned the core values that drive him. If we can see how he learned values like determination, we might learn how to teach these values to others. To gain useful insight we need to understand where the athlete learned the values that drove his success and then examine how he was able to apply those same values over and over to bring about serial success both in and out of sports. Perhaps that would also explain why most entrepreneurs become serial entrepreneurs.

I recently did the research for the biography of Dr. George Tinsley. His sports story is tremendous and his desire to win is clear in everything he achieved on the basketball court while setting records as an NCAA champion. His life story is equally tremendous. After his sports career, he was able to overcome many obstacles to also achieve greatness as a businessman and serial entrepreneur. Because the pattern of his serial success were so apparent his biography quickly started to take on new meaning as I was able to examine the values that became the drivers throughout his life. His story became far more than his sports accomplishments. It was about the values that helped him achieve success both on and off the court. It became clear he would have found a path to success with or without sports. By looking at his entire life it was possible to see that the values that led to his success in sports had also led to his success in business as a serial entrepreneur.

What I found by looking beyond his basketball career was that the values that brought his athletic success were the same values that led to his entrepreneurial success and which had been his guides to achieve every goal he set in life. He had learned those core values as a child growing up in the inner city, even before he graduated from elementary school. His adoptive mother, while poor and physically challenged had told him never to let anyone or anything stand in his way, that he could achieve whatever he set his mind to. She taught him that he was responsible for his own actions and what happened in his life. This didn’t mean not to accept help from others but not to be dependent on others for his success. She taught him to set goals and not to make excuses for failing. She taught him that, if he was determined enough, he could find a way to overcome any obstacle. George Tinsley’s life is proof that these values can be taught and his life is an example of what can happen when one applies entrepreneurial values like determination, hard work, and overcoming obstacles no matter what the challenges are in their life. His story has a beginning and an ending that, when followed, will give others a path to success. He learned to apply these values over and over no matter what his goal was.

When someone hears George Tinsley’s story they are not tempted to say he succeeded because of his natural abilities as an athlete. His sports story only explains one part of his life. Only the constant application of the entrepreneurial values over and over throughout life can explain his serial success. George Tinsley speaks with many student groups about entrepreneurism and the “Obstacles to Opportunities” they will face in life and teaches them how they can succeed. They may come to hear an NCAA champion speak but they learn by hearing his full life story.