Business lessons from the gym

Have you ever noticed how athletes tend to succeed in many areas? Not only are they physically fit, but they tend to do well in business and other endeavors as well. It’s no coincidence. To succeed in sports, you have to follow a certain routine in order to get results. If you apply that same training philosophy to your life outside sports, you can advance quickly and leapfrog over others like they’re standing still.

That’s the conclusion I’ve come to watching people at the gym this fall.

It’s one of the many benefits I’ve gleaned since I decided to join my husband in his morning routine once the kids went back to school this year. We work out three times a week at the University of Delaware student fitness center where we share equipment with athletes, students, and other faculty.

Now I have to admit that I was very intimidated on my first day there. Not only are most of these kids half my age, Robert immediately dragged me into the weight training room, the inner sanctum of the male athlete. You can smell the testosterone there (or maybe it’s just the b.o.). Anyway, they stared at me, I stared at them, and we all came to the same conclusion: I didn’t belong there. But I stayed anyway. I’m glad I did. Not only have I shed 15 pounds and two dress sizes in the last eight weeks, I’ve learned some very valuable business lessons from my fellow gym rats.

Perhaps you can benefit as well. Here’s what I’ve learned from jocks (stereotypical athlete) that most business people don’t know.


1. Dress for Success

Athletes invest in clothing and equipment that prevent injury and enhance performance. Jock straps, sports bras, moisture-wicking fabrics, high-tech footwear — you can tell in an instant who’s committed to fitness and who’s not simply by what they wear. If they show up in an oversized t-shirt and scuzzy tennis shoes, you know they’re not very serious.

In business, knowing and wearing your industry “uniform” instantly conveys your level of commitment. It says that you’ve learned what’s appropriate and are dressing to achieve results. If you ignore that uniform and “do your own thing,” you won’t be seen as a maverick – you’ll be seen as uneducated, or worse yet, an embarrassment. When one of Robert’s scientific colleagues collected a Biology Department award from Governor Minner in a formal ceremony recently while wearing a neon top, khaki shorts, and hiking boots, he fell into the latter category.

2. Dress to Impress

While people who are out of shape tend to hide beneath oversized clothes and billowy silhouettes, most athletes like to wear clothes that fit well and show off their toned physique. When you spend that much time and effort doing something, you want people to notice.

In business, you can let people know in an instant how hard you work by the clothing and accessories you wear. Sumptuous fabrics, beautiful leather goods, and polished grooming all easy convey that you both know quality and can afford to wear it. In some industries (like law and public relations), NOT dressing in accordance with your income level marks you as unsuccessful.

3. Set Goals and Record Results

Most gym rats work out because they’re trying to achieve a specific result: lose weight, build strength, get flexible. They begin with the end in mind and build a workout routine that helps them reach their goal. Many, like my husband, keep a fitness notebook where they plan their workouts and chart their progress. It keeps them on track with their goals and allows them to monitor their progress.

In business, the fastest, most efficient way to get ahead is to set specific goals and then work towards achieving them. Whether you want to increase your billable hours, get promoted to office manager, win the highest sales award, or whatever, you can get what you want IF you begin with the end in mind and figure out how to get there. Most people spend more time planning their vacations than they do their careers; if you plan your career with care, you can succeed to the point that you’ll be able take A LOT more vacations if you want.

4. Are Consistent

How do you think Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods, and David Beckham got to the top of their fields? By practicing their sport hour upon hour. A mentor once told me that you become proficient at something when you’ve done it for a 1,000 hours; you become a master when you’ve done it for 5,000. Athletes know that they have to put in the training time if they want the results.

In business, you become the best when you submit yourself to the learning process and work toward increasing your skills. Opportunities come with mastery. There are lots of very good people in every industry; but the best always shine through and are rewarded for their efforts. What’s the difference between the A-list and the C-list? More time spent in mastering the skill set – and often, A LOT more money.

5. Know that Small Changes Can Make a BIG Difference

When you’re working towards excellence in athletics, sometimes a small change in routine or instruction can make a BIG difference in getting results. I thought I was in pretty good shape because I’ve been taking ballet for years. What I’ve discovered in the last few weeks is that by adding a little weight training to the mix, I’ve strengthened my body in ways that make a dramatic difference in the dance studio: my extensions are longer, my back is stronger, and my balance is much more solid. It’s been a revelation.

In business, if you’re not reaching your goals satisfactorily, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and change your approach. Need to network more? Publish more? Speak more? What? If what you’re doing isn’t getting the job done, then try doing something else . You may be surprised at just what a big difference a small change can make.

In many ways, it all boils down to DISCIPLINE. Like an athlete, you can achieve whatever you want by setting goals, working your plan, and charting your progress. So get busy. Just do it.

Diana Pemberton-Sikes is a wardrobe and image consultant and author of “Wardrobe Magic,” an ebook that shows women how to transform their unruly closets into workable, wearable wardrobes. Visit her online at