Haas athletes apply lessons from the field of sports to the world of business.

By Bill Snyder


Early on a sunny, spring day in late April, 18 well-chilled Haas business students clambered onto the San Francisco shoreline, gasping and shivering after a 1.5-mile swim from Alcatraz. Most wore wet suits; all wore bathing caps emblazoned with two slogans: “No One Escapes” and “Challenge the Status Quo.”


The first was a light-hearted reference to the “Escape from Alcatraz” movie and swimming competition. But “Challenge the Status Quo” was a more serious twist on the Haas School’s Defining Principle Question the Status Quo, says full-time Berkeley MBA student Dennis Ducro, MBA 13, an organizer of the swim. “To succeed you need to do things you haven’t done, you need to lead and be persistent,” he says.


It would be hard to argue that the grueling swim didn’t meet those criteria. The students practiced hard for months, and had to overcome fears of drowning, hypothermia, and even sharks. Taking on such a difficult physical test can be seen as a metaphor for the challenges the students will face in the workplace when they graduate, notes Ducro. “You learn to swim against the tide, especially if you want to be the path-bending leader that our Dean Lyons stresses so much,” says Ducro, who is himself swimming against employment currents as one of the very few students in his class planning to work in the mining industry after graduation.


Indeed, the worlds of sports and business undeniably share some similarities. Self-discipline and persistence are just two of several skills required to succeed in the gym or on the field that can prove equally powerful in the competitive business sphere. And the link between success in sports and success in business doesn’t only apply to those who participate in team sports like football and basketball.


Learning to Listen


Consider Conrad Voorsanger, MBA 98, once a globally ranked gymnast, now a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Fitter, a health-care startup. Although gymnasts are part of a team, they perform solo - garnering a great score on the high bar (Voorsanger’s event) is on their shoulders alone. “Do business and sports fit together? They do, and in a big way,” he says.


“An athlete has to have a systematic repeated model for learning something really, really well. When you’re competing you learn that you have reserves that are deeper than you expected.” There’s something else as well: the ability to learn from someone else. “The way people get good in the gym is by being coached, which means you learn to listen,” an invaluable skill in the business world, he says.


Voorsanger won a scholarship to Stanford as an undergraduate but didn’t consider himself particularly gifted. His coach showed him otherwise. “I went from a happy guy with a scholarship to a national team athlete.” Voorsanger got so good that he competed on the world level and there’s even a high bar “trick,” a difficult flip and catch, named after him. (To see it, search YouTube for his name.)


Now that he is building his own company, Voorsanger says that all things being equal, he would give the edge to an athlete in the hiring process. “There’s an awful lot to be said for a positive attitude. Maybe it’s the endorphins, but athletes have it.”


Leadership Lessons from Rugby


As Voorsanger discovered, it’s hard to overestimate the value of a great coach. A good one not only builds winning teams, he or she helps build an athlete’s character, says Holly Schroth, who teaches Negotiations and Conflict Resolution as well as Organizational Behavior at Haas.


Last year Schroth wrote an article for the California Management Review, the Haas School’s peer-reviewed business journal, that profiled Cal’s highly regarded rugby coach, Jack Clark, whose techniques are similar to those used by successful business managers. “Clark runs his sport like a business,” Schroth says. She gives three examples:

  • “Selection of the right players is critical. Google asks ‘how Googly are you?’ Coach Clark selects for character.”
  • Team building. Everyone on the team must be willing to take initiative; that means acting like a leader.
  • Meritocracy is critical. You can’t have someone on the team who doesn’t contribute. Everyone on Clark’s teams agrees that if they don’t perform, someone else will get their spot.

Much like businesses, which must constantly improve to remain competitive, Schroth notes how Clark says that athletic competition “is not only about winning, but about getting better.”


Team Player




A successful career in business is the long-term goal of Talia Caldwell, BS 13, the first women’s basketball player accepted into Haas’ Undergraduate Program. As part of the No. 2 team in its conference, Caldwell, captain of the Cal Women’s Basketball Team, knows you don’t have to be the one to sink the basket to be a winner. During what may have been her toughest game, her high school team went into the locker room at half time, behind by 15 points.


“People had been taunting us, the other team was celebrating,” she recalls. That was a mistake. The fired-up young athletes charged back on to the court at Sacramento’s Arco Arena and won the state championship by double digits.


“We played like a complete team. I can’t tell you who scored what, and we didn’t care. We all wanted the championship more than (individual) stats,” Caldwell says.


Caldwell expects to build a business career, though she hasn’t yet decided on a specialization. “I’ve been playing ball since I was five, and I learned to be competitive. For me, the bottom line is winning.”


Of course, that’s typically the bottom line for successful business leaders, too.


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