What MMA taught me about running a marketing agency
Former mixed martial arts fighter Luca Senatore combined the octagon with the brutal world of digital marketing. Here's five things it taught him about running an agency
When it comes up while talking with clients or peers that I used to compete in high-level mixed martial arts (MMA), the responses I get always include an element of surprise and admiration that I could balance that with running a high-performing digital marketing agency. People seem to believe that competing in MMA at that level, which involves seven to 10 training sessions a week and a strict diet, might make running a business harder.
It doesn’t. It makes it easier, mainly because it provides transferable skills and strong benefits which translate well in business. The ones I find most significant are:
1. A strong body equals a strong mind
When your body is strong, your mind is also strong. A strong mind is a very good tool when running a business. When you put your body through hard training, you learn to cope under stressful situations and push through adversity. You’re working on your body but you’re also strengthening your mental fitness. I find this helps me in business, making important decisions, remaining calm under stressful situations and it improves my overall mental sharpness.
2. Fear can be a useful tool
Irrespective of how confident someone looks when walking into a cage or a ring, the experience is terrifying for all. During an interview, even Mike Tyson – one of the scariest boxers to ever live – said: “I’m scared to death. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of losing. I’m afraid of being humiliated. But I'm confident.”
I was known for my ability to keep unusually calm during fight week, fight day and even during the fight itself. I always had a smile on my face. Even the commentators picked up on how cheery I was when most other athletes looked tense. In reality, before making the walk to the cage, I was absolutely terrified. I had to learn it’s okay to be scared and it’s never about erasing the fear, it’s more about using that fear to our advantage. I learnt to channel it into positive energy that helped me perform and, more importantly, enjoy the journey.
The transferred skill here is the conscious awareness, the acceptance of the fact that it’s okay to be scared. Once we do that, then we can find ways to channel that fear and make it work for us.
On the surface, it looks as if MMA is only about the two athletes competing in the cage, one against the other. The reality is that there are two teams competing, not only two individuals. The trainers, the strength and conditioning coaches, the boxing coaches, the wrestling coaches, the jiu-jitsu coaches, the head coach and the teammates, all contribute to the training camps. Even during the fight, the coaches in the corner play a vital role that enables the athlete to perform well. As an athlete, you develop the ability to listen to and trust the instructions you hear from the corner, almost blindly. They give you instructions, you execute.
It’s a team effort. The fact that you’re the ‘boss’ doesn’t make you the best. I learned to listen humbly to what others have to say and to take their advice seriously.
4. The goal is important, but enjoying the journey there is fundamental
Many athletes fight only for the win. They train super hard, sacrifice many aspects of their lives to get themselves fight-ready, go through strict diets only to reap the results when their hand gets raised by the referee at the end of the context.
The problem: MMA is pretty much the most volatile and unpredictable of combat sports.
A skilled athlete, favourite on paper, might lose against opponents with massive odds against them. The complexity of this art, the many disciplines involved and the countless ways one might win or lose a fight means that losing a few fights during your career, even ones you shouldn’t, is very probable. So banking on the win to get your happy moment is a poor strategy.
I learned to love most moments of the process, from the fight announcement to the diet, the training, the walk-out and the fight. I believe this is the right way, the only way.
Enjoying every single part of the journey – not just winning business, not just winning awards or hitting performance targets – is a skill I learned directly from my experience in MMA. There’ll always be things you don’t enjoy doing, that’s normal, that is why we should look to inject passion in each step of the journey toward our goal. And you know what happens when people enjoy the journey? They travel more and travel better. These are the people who win, even before they get to the prize
5. It’s about the frame, not just the picture
Fighting and leading a digital marketing agency at the same time presents practical challenges. I often speak at events, I need to interact with my staff and clients face-to-face and when you do something like MMA, you might end up going to work with bruises on your face, or limping.
How do I deal with that? I’ve made being a mixed martial arts athlete part of my brand. We worked on this at Genie Goals: MMA was all over my LinkedIn profile and all over my Facebook profile; we published more than one blog post on the agency website about it, and generally made it very much part of my brand.
You can use your passion as a metaphor, drawing the attention of the reader to the overlapping commonalities between your passion and your work – in my case, high-impact competitive sport and business.
It’s also about the frame, not only the picture.
- Luca's new book, The Agency: Build. Grow. Repeat: How to build a remarkable digital agency business that wins and keeps clients, is out now.
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