How sport teaches you to be persistent in business

For over six years, I’ve been CEO of BetterMe – a health and wellness platform based in Kyiv, Ukraine that caters to users worldwide by providing a tailored, bio-individual approach to fitness and wellbeing.

Back in 2017, everything happened because of a hypothesis, a brave question: “What if...” – and today, years later, we have over 150 million users worldwide and continue to grow, even in the face of challenging circumstances like full-scale war. It wasn’t an instant jump, and we didn’t succeed in everything on the first try, but we respected every opportunity coming our way. At some point, I had a realisation: what I was doing in business had much in common with sport. What is more, doing sports consciously helps me train and develop the perseverance necessary for an entrepreneur.

Around 50 years ago, American psychologist Martin Seligman discovered a phenomenon of learned helplessness: after failing a few times, one can lose faith and accept the impossibility of reaching the goal without attempting to change that. This idea has stuck with me ever since my school years: I’m standing there at the end of the line in my PE class, just a small chubby girl who can neither jump high nor climb the rope. And don’t even get me started on headstands or gymnastics.

But at 27, I decided to overcome my limiting beliefs with actions, and after a few months of regular exercise, I’ve managed to do a full split. When I was 29 years old, I made a choice to start learning how to dance from the very beginning. In just one year, I discovered an incredible amount of joy in the way my body moved. Furthermore, recently the team launched a dance activewear collection in the BetterMe Store to boost confidence and empower women.

Just like in startups, if you test it many times and it still doesn’t work – you just don’t stop. If you are persistent enough, your 100th attempt will be a successful one. Or your 200th. Or your 1,000th.

For me, it’s crucial to assess things realistically before acting on them, applying just the right ‘filters’ so you don’t abandon your desired goal, even if you fail at the first 5-10 attempts. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has emphasised the importance of embracing this principle to maintain flexibility and resilience.

One of the most famous and successful football coaches, Jose Mourinho, has been dreaming about becoming a coach since the age of five. As a boy, he helped his father in this job: he was watching rival teams’ training, taking notes of important observations, making calculations. Observation and analysis were his key skills. Mourinho didn’t have a long career as a football player, quitting at 23 and explaining it in the following way: “Why did I finish playing so early? Because I’m a smart man! It became apparent to me very quickly that all I could do was second division”.

But Jose Mourinho didn’t leave football. He had a goal: to become a football coach whose name is associated with victory. Starting as a coach assistant, he displayed some amazing qualities, including an acute sense of observation, analytical thinking, tactics insights – and reached his goal. And why is that?

First: he knew the endpoint he wanted to reach.

Second: he analysed his biggest strengths and weaknesses, refusing to go towards an a priori lost path.

Third: he carried on despite all the difficulties, mistakes, scandals, and gossip.

Why did I take Mourinho as an example? I think that a company manager should act as a coach: be kind, but not sentimental. They should guide and adjust the team’s trajectory, even though the game itself does not require their involvement. And of course, managers should remove players who won’t help in winning ‘the game.’

BetterMe is my football team. With the help of football, I’ve formed some principles that guide my approach to work:

  1. The leader’s task is to create an atmosphere for victory. The leader should make players change their way of thinking, renouncing the ‘loser’ mindset and already feeling like winners. Psychology determines 80% of business success.
  2. Limit external influence and trust your own knowledge and principles. A football coach has many stakeholders, and each of them knows how to play: the club’s owners, investors, fans, and even the players. Everyone pulls in different directions. It’s crucial to maintain composure and deliver results to the team.
  3. Remember that success is fleeting. The victory can’t last forever. Time goes by, new winners come up. Your success is quickly forgotten, unless you are still in sight, keeping yourself in shape and moving forward.
  4. A player who is only motivated by money won’t last long. Money shouldn’t be the only motivation.
  5. Love is not necessary. To play a good game, it’s not necessary for players to love each other. But it’s very important to have mutual respect and trust towards each other. 
  6. Discover the potential of the brightest. It’s great when a professional player joins the team. And it’s even more special when a person who couldn’t tie their boots starts playing like a professional. It’s essential to know how to bring out the best in someone, support their makings and uncover a professional within them.
  7. Work with people, not with a product. Never forget that the leader works with a team, and hence an emotional composure of every employee. You can’t make good progress and achieve your goals if the team doesn’t have the right mental attitude, if the employee doesn’t understand why they should be doing their job.
  8. Safety. Limiting the number of unpleasant surprises is what leaders do.
  9. Play for the results. Think about people, but don’t forget why you’re playing in the first place. Create something bigger than yourself.
  10. Big leaders create big stories. The main goal of any leader is to create a vision, a sort of direction for all of the team and explain where and why they’re heading.

For me, sport is a special practice, a simulation of persistence in business. It’s very easy to give up if things don't work out for you. A pull-up that didn’t happen. A split that wasn’t achieved. A perfect idea that didn’t work. A campaign that failed. An impeccable hypothesis didn’t prove itself, and all of the efforts and resources were in vain.

But – this is very important! – if you didn’t succeed in something right now, it doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of it in general. Yes, you might not be ready for it at this very moment. Your body, your brain, your mind, your business requires a quality jump to reach that goal. It’s important not to stop. It’s important to know where you’re headed, why, and how to reach there, and then act upon it.

I'm confident that adopting a conscious and individual approach, whether it's in sports or business, helps you cultivate persistence and the ability to pursue your goals. That's why at BetterMe, we offer personalised healthy lifestyle programmes tailored to each individual. We understand that every organism is unique, and it's important to consider its specificities. Setting goals and taking action based on your strengths and skills are essential in both sports and business. Knowing how to set goals and achieve them adds value to your life and well-being, and fostering your inner happiness is the core value of BetterMe.