Emotional Intelligence: The Key to Athletic and Business Success

A while back, NexGoal asked a simple question over our social media channels: What traits acquired from your athletic career have or will help you in your professional career? The most common answers were persistence, determination, time management, and teamwork. However, one of the most interesting answers we consistently saw through our various channels was the idea of emotional intelligence. Defined, emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and those of the people around you. EI is a term that has been around for a while but hasn’t always been associated with sports. Four-time Olympian Bo Hanson describes EI in sports as such,

“For years we have marveled at how the great athletes are able to “switch themselves on” to create amazing performances with incredible consistency.  We would describe them as being composed, mentally tough, having the right psychology, a great sports mind, emotionally controlled or simply determined or focused. Today we recognize these athletes as having high levels of competency in the area of emotional intelligence.”

Perfecting the mental side of an athlete’s game starts with a thorough understanding of EI. With high EI, traits like persistence, determination, and teamwork become easier to display because the athlete has full control of their emotions and is able to turn those emotions into positive behavior.

So how does the emotional intelligence that you learned in sports transfer to a career outside of sports in the business world? To better understand how, we need to look at the components of EI. According to Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist who helped to popularize EI, there are five main components of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

In the following sections I will describe how the 5 components of EI make a difference for an athlete and how an athlete can translate those components to the business world.


Self-Awareness is the ability of one to understand his or her strengths and weaknesses as well as recognize their emotional state. In sports, self-awareness is essential for success. Coaches always talk about playing within yourself, which essentially means playing to your strengths. To be able to do this an athlete needs to be aware of what they’re good at and recognize their role. By recognizing and accepting their role, an athlete is able to better contribute to a team and allow for another player to pick them up in their weaker areas. The concept of roles also applies in the business world. You should be aware of your role in a company and stick within that role. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve on your weaker areas, but it does mean that you should be the very best in the role you’re assigned. By being the best in your assigned role, you become a valuable asset to your company and put yourself in good position for success.

Recognizing your emotional state in the midst of competition is perhaps one of the hardest things to master in sports. Losing control of emotion can be catastrophic in the heat of competition as it can affect individual and team performance, as well as team morale. That is why it is important in competition to be aware of your feelings quickly. Playing with emotion is fine, but it has to be controlled. Some coaches refer to this as playing on the edge but not over it. Much is the same in the business world. Emotion can be a great motivator in company culture if it is positive. However, negative emotion can be extremely hurtful to employee morale and company culture. If an employee is constantly scared that they might get berated for not doing their job, they will be more cautious in their work which can lead to stagnant creativity as well a high turnover rate for the company. By learning to recognize your emotional state, you can begin to decide when it is appropriate to display certain emotions to get the most out of co-workers or employees.


Once you are able to recognize your emotional states effectively, you have to be able to regulate those same emotions. As Hanson described, in athletics this is the ability of the athlete to stay composed and mentally tough no matter the circumstances. The ups and downs of competition cannot get to an athlete. They need to maintain an equilibrium of emotions that balances both highs and lows if they hope to develop consistency in their craft. This means not dwelling on both failures and successes. What’s important is what you do next. Your emotional state also rubs off on teammates which make your regulation of emotions even more important as it can affect the overall team’s performance.


This same mindset should be carried over into the working world. “Being able to stay composed and have the confidence to talk to high level executives and make presentations is essential to the success of any person in business, especially to those in sales,” says CEO of NexGoal and former NHL player Kevin Dahl. Just like in athletics, the moment should never be too big for you in the corporate world. It is essential to keep your composure in the most high pressure situations. By regulating your emotions, you can keep calm and focus on the task that needs to be accomplished.


If an athlete wants to be the best at their sport, they need to be able to motivate themselves. Self-motivation in sports involves persistence, determination, and focus. An athlete who can motivate himself or herself has clear goals that they want to achieve and will find any means necessary to overcome obstacles that stand in their way to meet these goals. It is their hope that while they drive to meet their goals, their teammates will recognize their efforts and follow their lead. The most motivated athlete is often the best athlete because their passion for their sport will not let them quit and force them to get better.


In the business world, these same traits of motivation can lead you and your company to the top. Setting clear goals for yourself or your company is essential to motivation. To be successful in the business world you need to know where you want to be and then have a plan to get there. Motivation is what will drive you to carry out your plan and allow you to reach your next goal! When looking at how to motivate yourself and others you have to ask yourself if you’re passionate about your job. Passion and dedication are key drivers of motivation and if neither exists, perhaps it’s time to explore a new career. Once you find your passion, it’s just a matter of keeping your eye on the prize and continually finding ways to meet the goals you have set for yourself and others.


An athlete is not always at the top of their game. All athletes have days where things just aren’t clicking. It is important for an athlete to understand this so that they are better able to show empathy to their teammates when they are struggling. To show empathy is to actually put themselves in the shoes of their teammate. A good teammate is one that has a complete understanding of each of his or her teammate’s personalities and is able to quickly diagnose the root of what is causing their poor play. It is then up to the athlete to pick up their teammate and find a solution so that the team can thrive.

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Having the ability empathize in the working world is equally important as it is in athletics. You are not always going to be able to make everyone happy or achieve complete motivation no matter how hard you try. However, you do have the ability to understand why a person may not be happy or motivated by empathizing. Two of the best ways to effectively empathize with someone are active listening and reading body language. Active listening involves providing feedback to the speaker when they are speaking to you. By engaging the speaker with feedback, they are more likely to feel that you care about their problem which can lead to more openness and cooperation. Reading body language is also essential because a co-worker or employee might say one thing but their body language could very well be saying something different. By recognizing different intricacies of body language, you will be able to tell what a person’s emotional state really is and adjust how you speak with them so that you can better use empathy.

Social Skills:

Having good social skills is one of the most important traits an athlete possesses as a teammate. Social skills in an athlete are really a culmination of the first four aspects of EI. To possess effective social skills an athlete must be aware of their emotions and be able to regulate those emotions. An athlete must also be able to motivate his teammates through communication as well empathize when a teammate isn’t playing to their full potential. If an athlete has perfected the first four EI concepts, then they are well on their way of being a master in social skills.


Possessing good social skills in the business world also involves mastering the first four aspects of EI. Communication in the working world is key because saying or typing the wrong thing can have dire consequences. Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and empathy all play a role in helping avoid such costly mistakes. Social skills are also important to have when you are trying to convey an idea or persuade someone. Both situations involve strong interpersonal or presentation skills and also a complete understanding of your audience. Having an understanding for your audience is very similar to understanding your teammates. You have to realize each person is different and you should prepare to communicate with them as unique individuals.


EI in athletics and the business world go hand in hand. The EI you learned playing a sport can be easily translated to your working profession. Go back and think what made you a good athlete and teammate, and take those same traits and use them in your career. More likely than not, the EI experience you gained in sports will put you far ahead of the competition in the business world.


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