3 Boston Entrepreneurs Talk Fighting and Business

Preparing for a fight and preparing for a key business meeting have more in common than you might think.

Mantras like discipline, focus and determination are constantly used in parallel between the ring and the board room. I've been able to get a feel for this while training for Haymakers for Hope, a Boston-based non-profit that raises money and awareness for cancer treatments through charity boxing events, these last four months. After speaking with entrepreneurs, investors and pro fighters, I've come to the realization that successfully honing in on a craft is not rocket science; discipline is a muscle. Flex it.

See what three Boston entrepreneurs and fighters have to say on the matter.

Craig Powell, President and CEO of Motus

Craig was the wrestling captain at Brown and is now a founding board member of Beat the Streets, a non-profit that focuses on inspiring urban youth through wrestling. They’re opening a chapter in Providence and partnering with Boston Youth Wrestling this summer.

1) Preparation is where the game is won or lost.  "In a sport like wrestling, intense preparation and training are required for a relatively short performance period – seven minutes is the typical duration of a college match, six minutes in high school. But those hours of preparation and training are critical to one’s success in the sport. Business is no different. Whether it’s preparing for a sales meeting or bringing a new product to market, many hours of preparation are critical to the success of any project. And it’s always clear whether someone is coming to the game prepared or under-prepared."

2) It’s about finesse and angles.  "Many people don’t understand the sport of wrestling. They assume it to be a brawling game. But wrestling is actually a game of finesse and creating angles to maximize your opportunity to score. A good wrestler knows that they must maneuver themselves into a scoring position by creating angles with their opponent. This requires swift, smooth movements that set the wrestler up to then explosively go for the score. In business, and particularly personnel management, it is a game of finesse and creating opportunities for success. As a business leader, I have always found that the most successful initiatives are the ones where I’ve subtly opened the team up to the project, allowing them to take ownership of any challenges with the understanding that they are supported and set-up to succeed … creating an angle or pathway for them to win. It turns out brute force is rarely effective in wrestling or business."

3) It’s a mental game; wins and losses happen in the six inches between the athlete’s ears.  "Having the confidence that you’ve prepared appropriately, that you’re capable of beating anyone due to your preparation, and allowing yourself to compete “loosely” or “naturally” is critical to a wrestler’s success. The same is true in business. Knowing that you and your team are prepared, having confidence in each other’s skills and abilities to complete the task at hand, and remaining fluid to recognize and make changes when things don’t go as originally planned, is critical.  It is critical to believe in your preparation, yourself, your solution, and the team around you."
Paul Karger, Founder and Managing Partner of TwinFocus Capital Partners
Paul owns two Kickboxing gyms, has fought semi-pro, and is one of the Commissioners of Combat Sports on the State Athletic Commission in Mass.

1) Practice breeds experience, experience breeds confidence, confidence breed success. "Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more you practice your striking, the better you get at it, and at some point it becomes second-nature so you can focus on the matters at hand. This is true in the boardroom and throughout your business career – you hone your negotiating tactics and relationship skills as you force yourself outside of the box to face new challenges."

2) Discipline is required in both fighting and business. "I’ve been training in martial arts –  Boxing, Muay Thai, Kali, Jeet Kune Do, and Karate –  nearly my entire life and self-discipline is a key component of what they all teach. It’s important to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge to take a thoughtful approach to everything you do. For instance, knowing when to strike and when to defend, or having the ability to apply forward pressure and “close the distance” when you really want to give up – and being able to control your impulses and choose the right path – are important skills in the ring that can be applied to business every day."

3) Train hard, fight easy. "When the pressure is on and you’re either stepping into the ring or walking into the boardroom, success depends largely on the effort you put into getting there. You need to exert every ounce of energy you have into practicing and over-preparing. And when you do that, it’ll be easier to overcome the challenges and claim victory when it really counts. Not every deal or match will be easy, but just how easy they are will depend on how hard you’ve prepared."

Kevin O’Brien, CEO and Co-Founder of GreatHorn
Kevin has been a fighter since a child. He’s a black belt and currently practices boxing and Aikido.

1) Control the Adrenaline Dump in a Meaningful Way. "The human body responds to stress in a predictable way: the fight or flight response. In many ways, martial arts training is designed to elicit and then train around the adrenaline rush that comes with conflict; through years of practice, the martial artist refines his or her instincts and responses around the tension, fear, and excitement that comes with it.

Real fights don't look like the movies. They are won or lost in seconds. Assuming a basic level of skill and conditioning, the deciding factor is almost all mental: being able to breathe, make controlled decisions during a rapidly developing and highly complex situation, and avoid tunnel vision are differentiators amongst trained fighters. Interestingly, that same skillset is invaluable to a business leader."

2) Entrepreneurs Can’t Have a Leadership ‘Style.’ "One of the profound lessons from training across multiple martial arts styles is that fluidity and control are more important than specific technical points. Situations defy expectations; what works in the confines of a kata, or proscribed encounter, rarely works as well (or at all!) in a live encounter.

Style is inherently limiting in this way. A martial artist who never trains from the clinch, for example, will both be underprepared should their opponent take the fight in close, but also have fewer options at their disposal if and when clinching would be the most appropriate response.

Leadership is similar. Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, talks quite a bit about the "predictable uncertainty" that comes with running a startup. Effectively managing to variability doesn't require expert-level skill in handling every possible situation, but it's vitally important to be able to size up a situation, understand what's happening, and respond decisively and appropriately -- even if the variables aren't where you are naturally most comfortable."

3) How to Take Down a Bigger Opponent. "One of the lessons of Aikido is that when someone is committed to an attack -- whether it's a punch, a kick, or a grab -- they have at least momentarily limited themselves to that effort. The skilled practitioner doesn't try to block or stop their attempt, but rather, they enter into it. The Japanese term is irimi, meaning "to enter directly". What is intriguing about the irimi response is that it runs counter to expectation. Instead of being injured or destroyed by the opponent, the Aikido student is suddenly in a place of opportunity. They've disrupted the intention of their opponent by extending past where the threat lies.

Standing toe-to-toe with a larger opponent is rarely a good idea. This is true in business as on the mat; larger players have more resources, they can hit harder, and they can typically outfight you if you play their game. However, if you can go where they do not, using agility, courage, and perception, you often find that you have an opportunity to play your game. Size and strength are assets, but there is always an opportunity for disruption when you move off the line -- a fact that I've found to be as true in software as in striking."

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