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The Sports and Negotiation Relationship

Notes on Negotiation

by Marty Latz, Latz Negotiation Institute

I’m a big sports fan. Phoenix Suns. Pro tennis and football. March Madness. Not a fanatic. But I really enjoy watching elite athletes compete.


I also fully appreciate the behind-the-scenes element in sports, especially at the pro level. Other than these athletes’ extraordinary physical skills, what have they done that empowered them to achieve such heights?


Not coincidentally, many share the same qualities as top-notch negotiators. Here are four that stand out.


1. Mental Discipline and Control

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus once said, “Golf is 80% mental, 10% ability, 10% luck.” The mental ability to focus and perform at the highest level under intense pressure constitutes a crucial quality of the world’s best athletes.


This same mental discipline and control can also be found in the world’s best negotiators. It takes psychological toughness to remain strategic when your bet-the-company deal appears headed south. Or what if you’re in sales and your promotion depends on you closing that big deal. Hostage negotiators and war time diplomats deal every day with life and death decisions.


And who hasn’t tried, and perhaps failed, at keeping their cool with their teenage kids?


Your mental game, in sports and negotiating, may make or break your success.


2. Homework and Constant Learning

I recently watched the movie King Richard about how tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams’ dad Richard had a plan from before they were even born to take them from poverty to the pros.


Two negotiation-related elements stood out to me from this inspiring story. One, Richard developed a written strategic plan with a super aggressive goal from the start and stuck with it despite major setbacks along the way. A written strategic plan based on your goals is also fundamental to negotiation success.


Two, the Williams family prioritized constant learning and improving in tennis and in life. In the movie, the family once watched a non-tennis-related movie and, after it ended, Richard grilled his kids about what they learned from it. The lessons applied to tennis, too.


Bottom line: world-class athletes constantly seek to learn and improve themselves, including gathering strategic intelligence about their opponents. Great negotiators and pro athletes do their homework. The best do a ton of it.


3. Game Plans Based on Proven Strategies

My 13-year-old daughter recently caught the basketball bug. Every day after school until her season started, without fail, she would practice in our driveway. I coached her on the fundamentals. They helped.


Every sport these days has a ton of research on what works and what doesn’t. Analytics. Optimal training. The most healthful nutrition. The best shot in the circumstances. And the list goes on. Coaches and trainers demand millions for their expertise.


What do they do with this knowledge? Develop winning game plans based on proven strategies.

World-class negotiators do the same.


4. Practice

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success suggests you need at least 10,000 hours to master your craft and become an expert, and cites Bill Gates, Tiger Woods and the Beatles as examples. Olympic champions Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, and many others practiced over 10,000 hours prior to their Olympic medal-winning performances.


While Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule is controversial, it’s not controversial to conclude that practice is essential to every top athlete’s ability to perform at the highest level.


It’s also crucial for negotiators. Don’t just think about negotiating. Study it, practice it, do it, and learn from it.

One final thought. Sports almost always have a winner and a loser. This is appropriate. Negotiations may also generate a perceived winner and loser, especially if significant zero-sum issues are on the table.


But a win-lose negotiation mindset can be extremely counterproductive in many circumstances, especially those involving a future relationship between the parties.


Keep this in mind next time you golf with your spouse.


Latz’s Lesson: I love sports and negotiations. Success in both depend on many of the same qualities.

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Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation Institute, a national negotiation training and consulting company, and ExpertNegotiator, a Web-based software company that helps managers and negotiators more effectively negotiate and implement best practices based on the experts' proven research. He is also the author of Gain the Edge! Negotiating to Get What You Want (St. Martin’s Press 2004). He can be reached at 480-951-3222 or Latz@ExpertNegotiator.com

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