Three business lessons from the hockey rink

Wayne Gretzky's famous quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been” is not the only insight you can use in your business

By Sean Ritchlin

Sep 16, 2015 @ 12:01 am EST

Countless business leaders, including Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett, have borrowed hockey great Wayne Gretzky's famous quote: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

As the founder and chief executive of a national mutual fund wholesaler, current ESPN college hockey analyst and player on two national champion University of Michigan hockey teams, I have some experience at the crossroads of business and sports. And while Mr. Gretzky's insight is iconic, it is far from the only lesson I took off the ice and into the world of financial services. Here are three more:

• Friendly competition is a powerful motivator. During my time at the University of Michigan, I was impressed every day by my teammates' athletic abilities. Each player was one of the best at the collegiate level. That meant that if I didn't play at the top of my game, I could expect to sit on the bench. Yes, we were all on the same team but we were also competing with each other for time on the ice. Pushing myself to match my teammates' skills and talents undoubtedly made me a better hockey player.

The same concept applies in business. Working with top performers can inspire people to step it up — especially if there are rewards to be had for surpassing expectations. As long as competition is motivated by recognition, as opposed to fear, (it's one thing to be benched; it's another to be cut from the team in a layoff), a little friendly competition can go a long way toward staying sharp.

• Your ability to adapt to unexpected challenges can make or break you. During my freshman year, an injury changed the course of my athletic and professional career. I suffered a rare, severe case of compartment syndrome, which caused me to lose muscle in my thigh and led to a three-week hospital stay, nine surgeries and six months of intense physical (and mental) rehabilitation. Getting hurt forced me to adjust my expectations and goals for the future: I would return to the team to play out my college years, but my visions of a long professional hockey career were no longer realistic. Accepting the reality of what happened to me was difficult but necessary in order to set new goals, which included bringing as much passion and energy as I could to a career off the ice. Running a wholesaling business is a fulfilling job that I genuinely enjoy — and that I am fortunately able to balance with staying connected to my passion for hockey as an ESPN analyst.

Setbacks and obstacles come in a variety of shapes and sizes — from a few volatile days in the market, as we have recently faced in the financial services industry, to huge collapses like the 2008 financial crisis. The first key to adapting is to stay focused on your individual role: what are your clients looking for from you? What do you bring to your team or practice? What are your strengths, and where can you improve? And the second is not to lose sight of what you want to accomplish in the long term.

• Each day is an opportunity to be better than the day before. College hockey teams set their sights on big goals like national championships, but focus on short-term achievements in order to get there: one practice and one game at a time. While I played in Michigan, we worked every day to be better than the day before. Some years, we were national champions, some years we weren't. But we always strived to play at the highest level.

My colleagues and I frequently ask ourselves and each other: “How can I be better than yesterday? What are the tools that will make a real difference? What can I do to make this adviser's life easier tomorrow?”

Executives love sports analogies, so they tend to be overused. But for those who look past the tired clich�s, the world of athletic competition offers valuable lessons and takeaways for business. So I'll close with one more, this time from Yogi Berra (not a hockey player, but one of the most quotable athletes in history): “If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.”

Sean Ritchlin is founder & CEO of Rock Harbor.

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