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3 lessons executives can learn from athletes

Pascale Witz, executive vice president of Global Divisions at SanofiPascale Witz, executive vice president of Global Divisions at Sanofi
Pascale Witz, executive vice president of Global Divisions at Sanofi© Céline Clanet

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it? is written by Pascale Witz, executive vice president of Global Divisions at Sanofi.

Frankly, I never dreamed of working in the corporate world. I wanted to be a track star–and I had big ambitions. I competed for various national and international titles in track and field, and actually won a French National championship. After my baccalauréat—roughly the American equivalent of graduating from high school—I decided to focus on my athletic training and chose a school that would allow me to continue dedicating my time to running. Then, when I was 24, l broke my ankle in a climbing accident.

The recovery process was long and painful. I quickly realized my dream of competing in the Olympics was nearly impossible. With a bitter sense of underachievement, I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform at the same level. I decided to leave my athletic career after almost ten years competing. At the time, I was devastated. But looking back now, I realize it was the best decision I could have made. To my surprise, track and business actually have a lot in common—generally speaking. For instance, they both share common values: respect, teamwork, and optimism. Here are some key lessons that I learned as an athlete that can also be applied in business:

Long-term training pays off
If you only train once before a marathon, you shouldn’t be surprised when you lose. Similarly, treat your career like a marathon—always be working to improve your skills for the long-term.

Compete against yourself, not others
Track and field is an individual sport. To win, you need to concentrate on beating yourself and surpassing your previous achievements, versus focusing on defeating an opponent. Likewise, in order to advance in your career you need to focus on being better at your job, not competing against your colleagues.

Establish trust
In sports, you need to trust your coach’s advice if you want to win. In business, you need to trust your manager if you want to succeed. A good leader will build a culture that enables a team to grow, while also allowing individuals to utilize their unique talents.

Although breaking my ankle was devastating, it was also life-changing. Who knows where I would be today if stuck with track? Every challenge–personal or professional–is an opportunity to redefine your personal road to success.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: Describe one make or break moment in your career–how did you navigate it?

Why I quit my job to start my own business by Gay Gaddis, CEO and founder of T3.

Ex-Oracle executive: How to take smart risks at work by Liz Wiseman, president of Wiseman Group.

Build-A-Bear CEO: How to navigate difficult career decisions by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

Why I gave up everything to start a career in Singapore by Perry Yeatman, CEO of Perry Yeatman Global Partners.

Why I choose to put my children before my work by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

How this Google executive handles stress at work by Margo Georgiadis, president of Americas Operations at Google.