There is no question for me that the pursuit of sport is a huge factor in empowering your success in the business world. This is not intended as a macho or swaggering claim. It just seems very clear that the skills and traits that are built up by a serious and dedicated commitment to a sport also form the foundation for a successful business or professional life.
To be deeply committed to a sport builds the skills that are crucial for entrepreneurial success. In both the sporting and business worlds, one must be goal-orientated. Both realms require you to be dedicated to your training and self-improvement. Both will require a strong self-belief. Both will require you to make mistakes and learn from them. Both worlds require that you trust your own intuition. And both disciplines require you to be open to new challenges and experiences.
My own sporting journey began in my childhood in Turkmenistan. My father was a well-known fencing coach and international fencing judge. But like many kids in the Soviet Union at that time, I first experimented with swimming, judo, martial arts, and courtyard football. I enjoyed them enough but none of these sports lit a flame for me.
Ironically, given that it was my Dad who was the fencing professional, it was actually my mother who got me hooked on this sport. She insisted that I give fencing a go. I complained that the fencing training centre was at the other side of town, more than an hour away by bus. But she insisted, saying: “Go on! Just give it a try. If it’s not for you, then no big deal. But at least you’ll be able to tell the other boys you fought with a real sword, just like d’Artagnan!” This was clearly a question of a mother knowing her son much better than he knew himself. Because of course, once I tried it, I was instantly hooked.
A lifetime of training began. Weeks spent in special pre-tournament training camps, where hours were spent in relentless practice. I felt the frisson of truly competing, the moment where all attention is focused on you. That moment when the coach, the judges, the other participants and the audience are all watching to see what you are capable of. And then the thrill of lifting a trophy. First the second place trophy and then eventually the first place. With the exhilaration of lifting it comes the satisfaction of knowing you earned it, that the hours and hours in the gym paid off, that you really did it.
Despite my teenage years being quite dominated by fencing, I still studied well at school and then university. The fact that my time was limited due to sports training meant that I used the time that was left to me wisely. And it wasn’t all work, work, work. It wasn’t just fencing followed by study followed by fencing followed by study. Even at the pre-competition training camps, we would sneak out at night to go to a disco. There was a balance in life! But it was conscious and considered and the sporting discipline helped me achieve that.
Fencing also quite literally opened up the world to me. I dreamed of seeing like beyond my ‘Iron curtain’ and my passion for sport enabled me to do just that. In order to go to international competitions, you had to show good results and get into your country’s national team. So when I reached 10th grade, I did just that and I got the opportunity to participate in international competitions.
My passion for fencing has stayed with me, from my childhood in Turkmenistan, to my adult life in Moscow and now my business life in London. When I fence today, the sport puts me into a kind of meditative state. When you are in a duel and you face an opponent, you have to act in that very moment, without thinking about anything else. Therefore, for the two hours that I play this sport my brain essentially gets ‘switched’ and this is very important for me in maintaining my life balance.
The greatest gifts that fencing has given me in my business life are the following seven skills. The first is to just keep moving forwards towards your goal. To do that, you have to know your goal clearly, in this very moment, time and place. You need to be very aware of this goal. Moving forward just for the sake of it is a waste of time and energy. The second skill is persistence: never give up. You have to gather all your strength and fight. The third is to train and keep training.
Champions train twice as hard as runners up. To maintain a leadership position is even more difficult than achieving it in the first place. The fourth transferable skill is self-belief. Just remember the rule: Nothing is impossible. The fifth transferable skill is to simply make mistakes. If Michael Jordan can talk about the shots he missed and the games he lost, then so can we all. As he said, he succeeded because he failed, over and over. The sixth golden rule is to listen to yourself. Trust your intuition. Hear the vice inside you that will give you that small advantage that helps you win. And last of all, be open to something new. Try something different, take a different approach and don’t be afraid to experiment.
It is clear to me that my business mindset was formed long before I actually grew up and entered the business world. It was created in the gymnasiums and competition halls of my teenage years and the spirit that it forged is what helps me throughout all other aspects of my life.