Black male basketball player in protective mask is holding a ball, preventing the spread of coronavirus infection

A few days after Thanksgiving 2020, COVID-19 left an American college football coach without a kicker. His solution wasn’t just unconventional—it busted through a 150-year-old gender barrier. That solution was Sarah Fuller, a female soccer star for the Vanderbilt SEC championship team. She’s also now the first woman to have played in a Power 5 American college football game.

Like many things that have happened this year, this opportunity wouldn’t have come along without the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been said that sports imitate life (or is it the opposite?), and that seems to be especially true of 2020. Thinking outside the box is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more business leaders can learn from the 2020 year in sports. Here are five things that happened—and the insights we can gain from them.

1. US sports . . . stop

On March 11, the NBA suspended its season after a player (who had just recently joked about the virus at a press conference) tested positive for COVID-19. Other sports leagues soon followed.

What can we learn from this?

Aside from the importance of taking real dangers seriously, this is a lesson in agility. Whole organizations now know they may need to change direction at a moment’s notice.

The NBA works hard to present itself as an industry leader on social issues, so it’s unsurprising that it was the first league to take the drastic step of suspending its season. It required courage and foresight, not to mention coordination and trust. When you’re running a business, too, don’t just be aware of the major trends and changes in society—be ready to act on them.

2. The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics are postponed

Less than two weeks after the NBA postponed its season, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to postpone the Olympics. While this decision may seem inevitable in hindsight, it was fraught with national and global politics, delaying an opportunity to rejuvenate the economy of Japan’s nearly two lost decades.

What can we learn from this?

Canceling a game is big. Stopping a sports season for a whole league is huge. Changing a global event that affects billions of people in almost every country, influences politics, and only comes around once every four years? That’s a whole different ballgame.

We’re often told to look at the big picture and make a decision, but that’s not always enough. When the stakes are high, there must be a strong communication strategy, including sound logical reasoning and emotional reassurance that people can rally behind. The organizers of the Olympics understand the emotional appeal of their organization. In a statement, the IOC said,The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times, and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”

Appealing through your mission and ideals makes it easier for stakeholders to agree with your decisions and fall in line with their implementation.

3. Players threaten to stop playoff games to protest police brutality

Eventually most US sports leagues restarted play—just in time for another social crisis. On Aug 27, in an unprecedented move, several teams refused to play playoff games to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. NBA players, who are predominantly Black, protested police violence in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The WNBA and even the NHL (mostly white) soon followed.

What can we learn from this?

In a year when everything can be questioned and nothing can be taken for granted, some athletes have come to realize the power they have to create change. Business leaders, too, have more power than we realize. From protecting the environment to investing ethically, actions we take in the private sector can help make a better world. If done strategically, they can also help our brand, such as when Silicon Valley supported enhanced immigration policy.

Politics can no longer be separated from business. So consider: What values does your company believe in, and can you use them to make a better society?

4. The NFL cancels its preseason

Not having a pre-season affected teams dramatically. Those that had basically the same players as the previous year relied on continuity for a strong head start. Teams with many new players, however, suffered from the lack of preseason practice—they had to learn together on the fly.

What can we learn from this?

Surviving 2020 has been about adapting to the new while staying true to our values. The NFL made a decision to keep going, even though it meant some teams had unfair advantages over others. We, as businesspeople, also need to think of our feet—whether it’s facing market trends, unexpected team dynamics, or something else unforeseen. Surviving means continuing to move forward despite the obstacles.

5. NBA legend Kobe Bryant passes away in a helicopter crash

Also in the helicopter were Bryant’s 14-year-old daughter Gianna and seven other people, including the pilot. The entire city of Los Angeles mourned. At the public wake, Michael Jordan shared how Bryant had asked him to be a mentor—they were closer than the public realized. 

What can we learn from this?

This all happened before the pandemic took hold in the US, but it was one of the most tragic events of the year. It also comes with an important message: live each moment to the fullest, and don’t give up on your dreams. Push your mentors (Jordan was initially reluctant to mentor Bryant). Take care of the people in your life who mean something to you. Give when you can. Sometimes we are not aware of how much good we are capable of.

We can only hope that 2021 will be a better year than 2020. We hope that the Olympics will come, that the COVID-19 vaccines will end the pandemic, and that “normal” life will resume. But if we just sit by waiting for all that, a lot can pass us by.

Use this time to take advantage of the important things in life and the unique opportunities before you. Who knows? You could be the next coach (or player!) to break tradition and change things forever—for the better.

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