5 things designers can learn from sports

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October 14, 2011

Right now, we are surrounded by so many great sports leagues. Whether you prefer baseball, basketball, football or even hockey, you can flip to ESPN and catch some pretty great highlights and news.

Not everyone is big into sports (or at least not the popular ones), yet no one can deny the entertainment value that sports give us day in and day out.

Personally, I am a huge NBA junkie (go Celtics!). With the recent close of the 2010–11 season, I picked up on some implied rules that typically guarantee a team some measure of success.

I also discovered that following these rules and tips could be useful to me as a freelance graphic designer in search of my own success. Rather than looking forward to the next season, I’ll share some of these rules with you now.

1. Put together a team with a common goal.

First, if you haven’t already surrounded yourself with a team or joined a team, do that as soon as possible. Some people, especially freelancers, believe they have to do everything themselves and can be successful only as a one-person show. They spend a ton of time trying to expand they skill set (with stuff they may not even enjoy) in order to become a Jack of all trades.

This is completely unnecessary, because people are out there with the skills you need who would love to join forces. Just look around and see who you can find. Doing so will alleviate some stress, and you might also pick up more business through your partner’s clients.

You may not be looking for an entire team to complement your skill set and services. Perhaps you’re in a narrow niche. But you could at least have a team of people to help promote you. Success will be hard to come by if no one knows you.

Once you’ve got your team, you need to constantly ensure that everyone understands the goals of the team, both short and long term. In sports, every team’s ultimate goal is to win the championship; but successful teams also focus on what they need to do along the way. Your team obviously wants success, but perhaps you all need to work on your promotional techniques or customer service skills first.

You also need to make sure that everyone understands their positions and duties. When you set clear expectations, holding those people accountable becomes easier. Much like on a sports team, if someone doesn’t fulfill their duties, you can “trade” them for someone else.

2. Don’t blame, just fix.

Not everything will go as planned. In fact, your plan will often go extremely off course. But in such situations, you must refrain from blaming others or external factors. Look at what you and your team are doing, try to be as honest as possible, and fix it. Some sports player who become unfocused or go on a losing streak will blame external factors far too often; they feel like the best fix is to just wait for the game to come around to them. This is a mistake, because if you’re in the “game,” you should make no excuses and should contribute as best you can.

There are no excuses, just solutions. If your design team continually gets feedback that points to a lack of creativity, you can’t just blame it on a creative funk. Study new techniques, and find ways to inspire your people. If you always blame something or someone else, you will create a culture that always looks for the scapegoat, and you might never fulfill your potential because you aren’t being honest with yourself.

3. Stick with it.

Long-term success takes time, and it’s no easy road. Some great sports franchises have had to wait years before winning a championship. Don’t be afraid to fail, because in every failure is a lesson or opportunity to build character. But don’t get so caught up in your failure that you feel like quitting.

This is easier said than done. I went through a rough patch after getting out of college. I decided to go straight into freelancing full time and work on whatever I could find. I attracted clients but could never close a deal. I was deeply discouraged. But I stuck with it, and since then I have run into a lot of clients who don’t mind paying my rate and who I have a great relationship with. While we all have different measures of success, I am extremely happy with my own results seven months after hitting that rough patch.

If something in your game plan isn’t working, don’t quit: try to fix it. Getting to the point where you feel at least comfortable can take days, months or even years. Failure can shape you into a great person and help you handle the success you seek.

4. Talk tough, but back it up.

If you followed the 2011 NBA finals like me, you probably heard that Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks tattooed the championship trophy on his arm before even winning it (he did it back in October, before the season even started!). It was a crazy thing to do back then, but then on June 12th he validated his body art by winning the trophy with his team.

Confidence is an amazing trait. But if you are going to talk tough, you’ve got to back it up. If you’re going for a superlative — say, best web designer in the city — that’s fine: just be prepared to prove it. If you claim to be a guru, make sure your credentials show as much. If you make yourself stand out, you have to be prepared to justify it.

You don’t want to sully your reputation by not holding up your end of bargain. Your reputation is the only thing by which some people know you; the last thing you want to do is tarnish it because of something you did or didn’t do.

For some of us, this isn’t really our bag. We prefer to lay low, stay humble and let our work do the talking. Whatever your approach, do it and do it well.

5. There are no shortcuts.

To succeed, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. There’s no way around it. In the society we live in today, with its 4G speeds and lightening-fast devices, we (especially us younger folks) have gotten used to things happening quickly. There is, however, no way to speed the train of success. As I said before, you’ve got to stick with it.

A lot of us buy into books and courses that claim to have the answer. The truth is, we have to forge our own path to success, no matter how long it takes. We can’t assemble a bunch of “star players” or concoct a recipe to achieve success faster than normal. We have to stay the course.

A stable fan base is one of the great rewards of taking your time to get to the top. The problem that a lot of these fly-by-night people face is that their “fans” just switch to the next new thing. When you take your time, you can really show yourself and your followers who you are and what you stand for. Taking your time also makes your company more resilient to sudden shifts in the industry and enables you to better stay on top of your business.

Be prepared to take your time and truly understand what it means to succeed.

What other lessons can we learn from the sports world?

Kendra Gaines

Kendra Gaines is a freelance designer from Virginia, USA. Connect with her.

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