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Entrepreneurs Need to Train Like Elite Athletes, According to a Former Pro Badminton Player

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October 26, 2020 8 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

, stress, , or fear can and often do impact entrepreneurs when they are trying to actualize their ideas and their ambitions. And, it is not uncommon for that wide-eyed ambition to be stalked by a silent sibyl questioning and prophesying some impending demise or imminent failure. Often, an entrepreneur will ask themselves questions like – will my startup experiment fail? What will happen to my employees if it does? Did I make a mistake doing this?  

This is not an unknown phenomenon, with many budding entrepreneurs falling by the wayside, swept up, or put out by worries and uncertainties. As a , I have often heard these persistent concerns, calling an end to my career, my startups, and my ambitions. But over time, and after a variety of attempts to mediate these worries, I have rediscovered an aspect from my past that has kept both my mind and body sharp and primed to withstand the stresses that come with the territory. 

I am an entrepreneur with an elite athlete mindset and now train myself accordingly. And, if you are an entrepreneur or small business owner then you should be training like one, too. 

How entrepreneurs are like elite athletes

The parallels between elite athletes and entrepreneurs are manifold. In elite sports, athletes are wired and conditioned to compete at the highest levels – week in and week out – all while knowing that if they make too many mistakes there are always others who are willing and able to take their place. Entrepreneurs intuitively understand that type of grind, as they are also experiencing high stakes competition, be it with their business competitors, or just as the elite figure skaters, having to impress their own judges — their consumers. 

Not only do elite athletes and entrepreneurs have to endure similar crucibles in which they must prove their worth, but they also share similar mentalities and characteristics. Some of these characteristics that they have in common are things like tenacity, passion, and drive — all of which are necessary ingredients for that unique alchemy that determines their success. For that reason, they can learn from one another to help them improve within their respective fields. 

How do I know this? 

Well for one, I am a serial entrepreneur, but I am also a former professional player. 

Related: 7 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Elite Athletes 

Years in elite sport taught me how to be a better entrepreneur

It is fair to say my childhood could be measured out in “birdies” – the high drag projectile used to play the sport of badminton – and the time I spent committing myself to endless hours of practice hitting them. That is how I developed my skills and endurance well enough to become a professional player. From this early dedication to the sport, I refined my ability to attribute passion to an abstract thing, which in this case was badminton.

That is what entrepreneurs do, too. Often, they are attributing passion to some hare-brained, barely conceivable idea, but because they are so devoted to it they are willing to put in the countless hours to try and make their ideas go “pro” or become a success. 

Elite sport taught me many things that I use today in my career as an entrepreneur, such as following a passion, learning to deal with failure, but also how to take care of my body when it’s living with the stresses of the job. This has kept me agile, able, and motivated to be an entrepreneur many times over. 

So, if you are an entrepreneur, here is how you can train yourself as an elite athlete too.

How can entrepreneurs train like elite athletes?

What follows are, in my opinion, the three decisive training aspects of elite athletes that can be adopted by entrepreneurs. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these training tips will undoubtedly improve your , but also the health of the work you are committing yourself to.

1. Focus on your  

Elite athletes are finely tuned machines, and as such, they require optimal patterns of sleep. The research is quite extensive, showing that athletes who have better and more sleep than their competitors typically have better performances. In this vein, entrepreneurs and elite athletes are the same, as entrepreneurs need their cognitive skills to be just as finely tuned as an athlete does with their body.

In a recent study shared by The Harvard Business Review, researchers have found significant improvements in cognitive performance from those entrepreneurs who had more sleep. They found that adequate sleep significantly improved the ability of entrepreneurs to spot good ideas – which can be critical to your success. 

This is all easier said than done, of course, as the vagaries of entrepreneurship can often interrupt any form of routine. The point is, you should make sleep work for you. Determine whether you work better at night, or in the morning, or if you are a person who can run on intermittent naps. Enlist a sleep coach or download an app, the main crux is that you find a way to get enough sleep so that your performance does not suffer.

Related: Are You a Workaholic? How To Focus on Working Smart Instead of Hard In 2020.

2. Accomplish more by working intelligently 

Elite runners have to get adequate rest, and the same goes for bodybuilders – muscles grow when they are recovering. To have any lasting power in the game, you cannot beat your body to oblivion if you want to be able to compete and compete consistently. 

For many years, athletes lived by the ethos that training hard and intense, all the time, would help improve their performance, but that has been thoroughly debunked. The science shows that adequate rest is paramount for the success of any training regimen. The equation “stress + rest= growth” has been adopted by athletes, and it should certainly find a home in the world of entrepreneurship.

Working intelligently will pay dividends for the entrepreneur in the long run. Studies have revealed that there is an optimal amount of time for effective concentration, some say it is 52 minutes of work, and then a break, while others believe it is 20 minutes for full concentration. It has been shown that when entrepreneurs adopt this type of intelligent work cycle in which they are aware of when to take a step back and clear their thoughts, their productivity improves. 

Further, it has been shown that when you take a step away from work and give your mind a rest, your decision making improves, and you have more “aha” moments that lead to more creative and intelligent solutions.

As an entrepreneur, you should adopt this principle, even if it feels strange at first to leave your work sporadically throughout the day. Go set a timer and break up your hours accordingly, and you will find that you are working more efficiently, and critically, making even better decisions.

3. Get yourself a mentor or a coach

It is nearly impossible to think of an athlete competing without a coach. Usain Bolt has one, I had one while I was playing badminton, every team in every sport has one as well. 

Why? 

Because coaches are integral to the success of elite athletes because they make sure that they are constantly aware of their training, their sport, and the many variables that surround them. They motivate, mentor, and push the athlete forward so that they can accomplish their goals.

Entrepreneurs, or startup founders, can unequivocally benefit from the help of a coach or mentor. If you are new to the game or just starting out, having a mentor to help guide you and help you network within the industry will provide an optimal platform for when you begin.

If you do not have the luxury of prior connections for a coach or mentor, they are not that difficult to find. There are countless startup accelerators out there for you to join, that help with investment, and provide office spaces. But, you should do your research before you join one, and look for those accelerators that also have strong market networks and actively provide coaching sessions for nascent entrepreneurs. Find a coach or mentor who can guide you through the initial uncertainties of the business and to help you open doors, but just as an elite athlete, the coach is not going to compete for you – that you will have to do it for yourself.  

Related: The Two Meetings with That Changed My Life

 

 

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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