Passing the Torch: Athletic and Entrepreneurial Endeavors

Terjesen, Siri A. (2007) Passing the Torch: Athletic and Entrepreneurial Endeavors. Ultrarunning, 27(5).


One of the most rewarding aspects of ultrarunning and athletics is the chance to meet a lot of really neat people. Among these folks are a unique and inspirational breed of small business owners and entrepreneurs. In my 'non-running life,' I study the establishment and growth of new firms and am fascinated by the sheer and completely disproportionate number of sporty types, and former Olympians, who continue to blaze their own trail—by starting, taking over and growing their own firms. I call this phenomenon 'Passing the Torch,' and have initiated an in-depth global study of such individuals.

Let’s begin with some examples, from our sport and beyond. First, there are a number of folks who pursue athletics-related industry. Pam Reed runs top-notch times at multiple distances and is race director for the world-class Tucson Marathon. Wisconsin's Kevin Setnes runs Ultrafit, which provides a range of quality endurance products. Bozeman-based Celia Bertoia runs Perfect Timing, a terrific race organizing service. In the UK, the world record holder for the number of marathons won (66), multiple London-to-Brighton winner Leslie Watson has a successful physiotherapy practice in London. Korea’s Bokjin Park (one of the 2006 IAU World 100K organizers) recently started his own shoe company-- 'faab'-- free as a bird (Terjesen, 2007). Many other successful athletes also run their own business in a non-sports related areas such as manufacturing, retail, and services.

'Passing the torch' is apparent in many other sports. My research has begun to uncover former Olympians who have subsequently started their own firms, in sports and other arenas. For example, gymnastics greats Valerie Liukin and Evgeny Marchenko now run a very successful gym in Plano, Texas. The Chinese gymnast Li Ning (winner of 3 golds, 2 silvers and 1 bronze) retired in 1988 and in 1990 founded Beijing Li-Ning Sports Goods which sells athletic footwear and apparel. His products outsell Nike and Adidas in China and revenues exceed $300 million. America's Jair Lynch, 1996 Olympic Silver medalist, heads a thriving real estate development practice. Another Olympic Silver medalist, from two decades earlier, Rick Wohlhuter (1976 Olympic Games’ 800m) now runs a successful financial planning practice in Illinois. Golfing greats David Frost and Greg Norman have established wineries, in their native South Africa and Australia, respectively. Among marathoners, Jonny Halberstadt and Mark Plaatjes, both running legends (and the latter the holder of the 1993 World Marathon Championships title), are South African emigres and majority owners of the Boulder Running Company in Boulder, Colorado, Bob Kennedy recently started his own running store, and the late Brian Maxwell founded PowerBar with his wife Jennifer. My friend Rashad Bartholomew, a former running back for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, recently completed a Stanford MBA and Master's in Education and has started Power Learning, a company that provides web-application that enable educators to share content and ideas and to improve teaching effectiveness. WNBA star Dawn Staley joined collegiate basketball star Angela Taylor and Olympic volleyball player Beverly Oden to recently launch an ambitious social venture to improve the chances of at-risk students to attend college.

There are also many close parallels that suggest that something significant is afoot. For example, consider the remarkable legacy of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II— all top athletes who trained rigorously in skiing and mountaineering. Not only are many of these men still skiing (in the their 80s!) a disproportionate number started businesses from ski areas to.... Nike.

What is it about athletes that drive them to run their own businesses? What role does sports success, or just being sporty, play in managing a business? There is a very small but growing body of research, and a trickle of key concepts which I share below.

Fitness and High Performance. Fitness does a body, a mind and a soul good. Research by Ball State University academics reveals that small business owners who maintain good levels of fitness are more likely to be higher-performing (Goldsby, Kuratko & Bishop, 2005). Gregory Florez, former Nike athlete and CEO of First Fitness, has been working to improve executive well-being for over 20 years, coaching executives to help them adapt to the extraordinary demands of leadership at the highest level. Conservative estimates from his work indicate that healthy executives are 23% more productive than their less active counterparts. Athletes don’t need to be convinced of the mind-body connection and the relationship between nutrition, stress, recovery, and performance. Comfort with training schedules, cycles of rest and recovery, discipline, and general self-awareness may help athletes who become business owners to design lives that support and sustain the significant commitment required to their work.

Self Efficacy. In field of psychology, 'self-efficacy' describes individuals' beliefs about their ability to produce high levels of performance in tasks undertaken in life. Self-efficacy is at the core of how individuals think, motivate and feel about themselves, and also behave. Individuals with strong self-efficacy approach tasks as challenges, even under stressful situations, and are strongly motivated. Even when they have 'failed,' individuals with high levels of self-efficacy can recover and attribute their lack of success to being deficient in a key set of knowledge and skills which can be acquired. On the other hand, individuals with low self-efficacy doubt their abilities and are unlikely to pursue tasks and activities which are perceived as difficult. In the face of such tasks, they think about their personal deficiencies, the potential obstacles and are pessimistic about the ability to perform successfully. When faced with failure, they are slow to recover and lose motivation. An individual develops his/her sense of self-efficacy through experiencing success (especially in challenging tasks) and through positive reinforcement from others (e.g. family members, friends, role models). Sports psychologists have established a clear link between self-efficacy and sports success. In parallel, there is a great body of entrepreneurship research indicating that entrepreneurs also generally have high levels of self-efficacy. An individual's self-efficacy is developed from a young age. Dedicated training in sports can foster the development of a learning mastery orientation within children that can be applied to an array of domains later in life—increasing the odds that the individual will flourish in whichever domains that s/he pursues. In the words of my colleagues: 'Competitive sports cultivate the aptitude to constantly better yourself and aim for becoming the improve perceptions and interpretations of environmental uncertainty and provide coping strategies in the entrepreneurial competitive arena which is a crucial element in self-efficacy. Hence, children who participate in competitive sports are socialized into an entrepreneurial mindset - they feel more competitively competent, set higher goals, and are more persistent in their attempts to achieve their goals. Such children may thus be spurred on by apparent obstacles rather than feel discouraged by them' (Neergaard & Krueger, 2007). There is a potential dark side to self-efficacy, however. The ability to externalize failure and a predisposition to optimism may cause an entrepreneur to be unreasonably committed to a business idea without accepting feedback – from friends, colleagues, or the market. The very confidence an entrepreneur exhibits can become the very thing that sows the seeds of failure.

Athletes may find that they need to work just as hard in the business world in order to be successful. Furthermore, self-efficacy may be task specific. Just because an athlete has confidence in his/her long distance running prowess does not necessarily mean that individual will have confidence in his/her entrepreneurial abilities. However, there does tend to be some carry over from general self-efficacy to different domains. Individuals who have achieved success can always look back at that and draw strength that they have succeeded in something important in life, even if it is a different domain.

Self-Leadership. Another psychology principle, self-leadership, is defined as 'the process of influencing oneself to establish the self-direction and self-motivation needed to perform' (Manz, 1992). The concept describes a higher level of self-influence beyond the scope of self-management, encompassing monitoring as well as strategizing toward optimal outcomes. Individuals with strong self-leadership skills engage in self-dialog through their daily work and project mental images of success (Manz, 1992). This self-dialog has been linked to increased mental performance, enthusiasm for work, and decreased levels of stress (Neck & Manz, 1996). Further, self-leadership is associated with persistence in the entrepreneurial process (Neck, Neck, Manz and Godwin, 1999) as well as the decision to run ultras and the ability to finish. For example, both entrepreneurs and athletes have been found to engage in self-dialog and self-verbalizations, which are linked to performance improvements.

Search for Authenticity. Athletes seek authenticity, in their sport and in themselves. These individuals may also seek authenticity in their careers, a phenomenon which involves the willingness 'to take initiative and responsibility for his or her career and able to achieve congruence between past and future, as well as between private and public domains of one's self' (Svejenova, 2005). Authenticity-seeking individuals are also found in the creative industries, such as film, food and TV. Authenticity seeking entrepreneurs report pursuing careers based on vision, values and loves, what is described as a 'path with the heart.'

Flow. Another cognitive strength for many top athletes is the ability to readily find a 'flow' state where they are 'in the zone' of heightened awareness and confidence and the resulting increased performance and satisfaction. Elite athletes appear to have well-above average abilities to attain and maintain a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Resilience to Adversity. Professors Martin Seligman and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi have forged considerable research into positive psychology. Seligman coined the term 'learned optimism' (1990) to describe an attributional measure of resilience to adversity that seems imperative to initiating and persisting at significant goal-directed behavior. Not surprisingly, this measure characterizes both world-class athletes and entrepreneurs (Krueger et al., 2000).

Tall Poppy Syndrome. In Australia, the term 'tall poppy syndrome' is used to describe individuals who call attention to their better-than-average abilities, e.g. are tall flowers who waver over the crowds. This behavior is tolerated by elite athletes and rock stars, but frowned in other areas, and is also easily found in Scandinavian cultures. For example, in Norwegian, we have an expression, 'janteloven' which means 'Don't ever think you count for anything!' Athletes who grow up in such cultures are used to over-achieve and are, in fact, encouraged to do so. For example, Helle Neergaard found that many of Denmark's venture capitalists achieved earlier success on athletic fields; many continue to engage in atheltics at a high level. There are also examples in the United Staets. For example, American venture capitalist John Hummer of Hummer Winblad is an alumnus of the NBA and pro football star Ronnie Lott is also a rising venture capitalist.

Pattern and Opportunity Seeking. High-achieving athletes have developed exceptional abilities to identify patterns and opportunities. Entrepreneurs are equally adept as seeing and seizing opportunities in a variety of environments. World-class athletes are very focused – often maniacally so – on finding the tiniest improvement in performance, which often is buried in a mound of data. Pattern recognition – the process by which individuals identify meaningful patterns in complex collections of data or events has been identified as a critical aspect of opportunity recognition and something that can be learned over time (Baron & Ensley, 2006).

Team Player. Many sports involve a team. Even in ultrarunning, which is dominated by the lonely long-distance runner, there are wonderful opportunities for camaraderie. For example, the IAU World 100K Championship is based on the performance of the top three athletes from each national team. In other sports the need to work as a team is more explicit. For example, winning a Grand Tour as a professional road cyclist requires the support and commitment of the entire team over a three-week time period, and a professional cyclist is always keenly aware that he or she wins because the team from top to bottom is aligned in the support of this goal A coterie of cooks, support staff, and mechanics operate with one goal in mind: remove everything but riding, eating, and recovering from the mind of the rider during the race. A Directeur Sportif develops the team tactics that the riders execute, with each rider sacrificing his or her chance to win the race to protect the designated team leader. Athletes often develop excellent leadership and followership skills which can come in handy in new ventures, of which more than half are co-founded.

If you know of ultrarunner or athlete-entrepreneurs from other sports who would like to participate in the research, please e-mail me at The results should be useful to athletes aspiring to 'pass the torch' themselves. My friends and I look forward to sharing our findings!

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ID Code: 7978
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: Yes
Additional Information: For more information, please refer to the publisher's website (link above) or contact the author:
Additional URLs:
Keywords: Ultrarunning, Entrepreneurship, Olympic Athletes
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > COMMERCE MANAGEMENT TOURISM AND SERVICES (150000) > BUSINESS AND MANAGEMENT (150300)
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2007 Ultrarunning
Deposited On: 07 Jun 2007 00:00
Last Modified: 05 Jan 2011 13:31

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