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Why Making It As A Tech Founder Requires An Athlete’s Toughness

With a record 23 singles Grand Slam titles during her illustrious career, no one would question Serena Williams’ natural talent. Accompanying her perfect combination of power and skill is sheer determination, hard work and discipline. For tech founders, adopting the attitude and mental fortitude of great athletes is a way to overcome the challenges startups face.

After years of solid growth, the tech industry faces falling stock pricestightening VC wallets and widespread layoffs. Big Tech will undoubtedly emerge stronger following the down market. But for innovative startups, the decline in VC spending combined with the greater market conditions put exorbitant amounts of pressure on founders.

Many people dismiss athletes as divas playing a kid’s game for millions of dollars, but perhaps this assumption undermines the hard work that the greatest athletes invest in their craft. Certainly, professional athletes at the highest levels have a different lifestyle and reality from tech founders, not to mention vastly different day-to-day roles. But their jobs are often equally demanding.

Tech founders are expected to work long hours, implement work processes, set strategies, define objectives, handle hiring, establish culture and demonstrate leadership. Athletes also work long hours filled with grueling training sessions, crazy travel, mandatory media appearances and exhaustive game-day routines. To thrive as the head of a startup or a professional athlete requires navigating these daily grinds for days and even years on end.

Many founders struggle with tough decisions, such as trimming budgets and laying off workers. Likewise, many young athletes transitioning from the amateur ranks find difficulty and added pressure in meeting heightened expectations, staying physically fit and adjusting to a demanding routine. Despite the undeniable differences that pro athletes and tech founders experience, to thrive in either role requires the highest possible degree of mental fortitude.

Building Mental Fortitude

Startup founders would be wise to look toward some of the greatest athletes for inspiration. Whether a team player like a Michael Jordan or Tom Brady, or an individual athlete such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Phelps or Kerri Strug, their hard work, dedication and preparation allowed them to overcome insurmountable odds to find success.

Watching Serena Williams’ masterful 2017 Australian Open final victory without dropping a single set—while 35 and pregnant—is inspiring and emotional. But it doesn’t teach tech founders the tools to adopt her mentality. Her mental fortitude and stamina were developed away from the spotlight of tennis’s biggest stages. Here are the five most important characteristics on which tech founders should focus to boost their mental fortitude.

1. Developing A Routine

By developing a routine from the beginning of the day until bedtime, a founder can establish a stable structure to support all their other actions. Committing to a daily routine helps develop discipline and sets strong work habits that benefit the startup’s entire operation. Great athletes are masters of routine because it keeps them prepared mentally, and the same applies to founders.

2. Leadership

Leadership obviously comes with the territory of being a founder, and there can be many different styles of effective leadership. Ultimately, effective leadership requires founders to find creative ways to motivate and inspire their workforce in order to boost productivity and passion. Startups often operate within an uncertain environment, and strong leadership is the only remedy to make sure uncertainty doesn’t distract teams from executing.

3. Fearlessness

Founding a startup is a risky endeavor and requires the strongest degree of self-assurance. Whenever U.S. soccer icon Mia Hamm stepped onto the field, she did so with the utmost belief in herself, inspiring her teammates and an entire generation of female athletes. Hamm never feared mistakes, or losing, as these provided learning opportunities. When leading a startup during shaky economic times, a fearless founder provides the rest of the employees with the confidence and comfort to maintain morale.

4. Resilience

Resilient athletes are able to overcome adversity, such as an injury or unfortunate circumstance to perform at their best—think Michael Jordan playing through the flu to score 38 points in a crucial Game 5 win in the 1997 NBA Finals. Tech founders also need resilience to ensure that any obstacle doesn’t derail the company or slow momentum. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and this must be taken to heart.

5. Exercise

Yes, tech founders can even learn from the physicality of the pros. Whether yoga, running or any other form of exercise, carving out a window dedicated to being active should be an important part of any founder’s daily routine. Physical health directly contributes to one’s mental well-being, which, needless to say, is an important aspect of any leadership role. Exercise also provides founders with a counterbalance to the stress and pressure they undoubtedly encounter, giving them time to clear their minds, focus and reflect on some of the more important decisions they face.

Developing these habits takes time and dedication, but it will reinforce a founder’s confidence and provide the necessary tools to handle the grueling challenges that early-stage startups face. Of course, mental toughness alone won’t empower a founder to lead his company to the top. But when accompanied by a product market fit, business savvy, self-belief and a strong strategic vision, tech founders are armed with all the right tools to guide their company through any challenge.

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

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