It’s the time of resolutions, including that one that is so often made and broken: to go to the gym. If you’re like a lot of people, you probably avoid the gym for two reasons: You find it boring, and you’re too focused on your career. So why not try an athletic activity that solves both problems at once?
Over the past year, Fast Company interviewed successful businesspeople who were also avid hobbyists in one sport or another. In each case, one reason they became so invested in their sport to begin with was that it involved honing a skill that was crucial to advancing their career. If you’re looking for resolution ideas on a grander scale, read on.
Are you hyper-competitive–yet need to learn to chill out? Then Thai boxing may be the martial art you want to take up in 2016. Adam Eskin, the CEO of Dig Inn, took up the sport, thinking it would be a way to let off steam. But gradually, he learned that the way of the Muay Thai expert wasn’t punching and kicking as hard as he can, but of studying the craft, with self-control, restraint, and discipline. “I’m more Zen about technique,” he says. Especially after that time he broke his nose.
What’s an “Enduro”? It’s a certain kind of long-distance dirt-biking, and it’s the passion of Steve Boardman of Convergent Dental. Once you’ve trained to do a seven-hour motorcycle race, you’ve mastered focus like in few other sports. “You’re flying through the forest, the terrain changes, there’s a rock here, a rut there, a tree there, and every limb is doing something—you’ve got the gas and break in your right hand, the clutch in the left hand, the rear brake on the right foot, the transmission on the left foot,” says Boardman, giving a glimpse of the ways your brain will need to operate in this sport. “I definitely saw that as I got better at racing motorcycles, my ability to focus on the task at hand increased—whether it was working on a project or being an executive in a board meeting or reading a book.”
OK, you’re probably not going to take up skateboarding by now if you haven’t already. But if you grew up a skater and are now thinking of giving it up as you age–don’t. Kohl Crecelius of Krochet Kids had a dread of being “that guy”–the 30-year-old who still hangs out around the skate park. But being “that guy” is exactly what helps him regain the point of view of the youngsters who make up his market. “Skateboarders are the kings of sniffing out BS and lack of authenticity,” he says. “It’s important to be connected to these forward-thinking groups, and the best way is to be a participant.” Even–or maybe especially–when it entails running from the cops, as Crecelius did recently along with a gaggle of other skaters.
Anthony Katz of Hyperice likes to play pickup ball. One thing he loves about is the “randomness” of it, which emulates the uncharted terrain of business. If you’re on a regular basketball team, you know your teammates, and you can study your opponents over a season. But on a strange playground or in an unknown gym, you have to adapt quickly–or fail. “You need to have the ability to go into a gym and figure out where you fit in among the other four guys on your team,” he says. “You may say, ‘Okay, I’m the best player on the team, so I have to do a lot of scoring or else we’ll lose.’ Or it may be: ‘These three other guys score a lot, so my role here is to defend, rebound, and pass.’” He has found this ability to adapt crucial in entrepreneurship, as well: “I really feel that this is one thing all good entrepreneurs have in common, because when you’re growing a business you’re always understaffed,” he says–which means you often have to pivot from role to role yourself.
Dave Graham of Latitude 38 Entertainment fishes for a number of reasons: it’s a challenge both physical and mental, it demands perseverance, and you can better take the measure of a potential hire when on the river. But most of all, it’s the slower pace of fishing that Graham finds restorative. “Sometimes you need to slow down to speed up,” he says, noting that solutions to business problems spontaneously come to him after a few hours on the river. “In order to make a good decision, you need to block out the noise,” he says. When he’s on the river, he finds himself more able to “flip ideas on their head,” and he has, he says, a 100% satisfaction rate with big decisions he’s arrived at while fishing.
Jeff Bonforte of Yahoo has skydived almost 500 times. He’s jumped out of helicopters and hot air balloons, landing on terrain as varied as glaciers and deep valleys. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the most enduring lessons he learned in the process had to do with risk. “As an entrepreneur, you have to have a distorted sense of risk,” he says. “The risk/reward equation is incredibly imbalanced.” He’s known fewer people that have died skydiving than you might think–seven–but at the same time… he knows seven people who’ve died skydiving. Only two made mistakes–the other five were, in essence, unlucky. He says that skydiving, like business, is essentially about “managing risk down. You can’t get around the fact that skydiving is risky. But you minimize risk.”
A major reason their company, Catalyst, is succeeding, may be that Josh Wright and June Lai were rock-climbing partners first. “After years of climbing, I trust June like family,” says Wright. With a climbing partner, you learn amazing communication skills, since to keep mum at a crucial moment can cause severe injury–or worse. “If someone sets up an anchor wrong, or there’s a gear in the wall that’s in backwards, or the belay device is set up improperly, you’ve got to communicate that,” says Wright. “When we do design work or product development, it’s not life-and-death stuff, but we still have a really direct way of communicating.” You also get an unvarnished view of your partner. Lai and Wright have seen each other exhausted, battered, compromised. “I gave up worrying about what Josh thought about me a long time ago,” says Lai.