By Eileen Turkot, RSM Latin America Regional Leader

A few weeks ago I was presented with an exciting opportunity to witness Rafa Bravo, Director of Special Projects at RSM México and internationally ranked open water swimmer, fulfil his dream of crossing the 20 Bridges of Manhattan during a 30-mile swim, which he completed in just over nine hours.

In my role as Regional Leader for Latin America at RSM, I was able to closely follow Rafa’s preparation process and watch this amazing achievement on the day. Reflecting on his success, I have considered some of the great lessons that sports can teach the business world.

Courageous transformation

Although Rafa had participated in high-performance competitions before, preparing for the 20 Bridges of Manhattan required a much deeper physical and mental transformation. From swimming a distance of 8.6 miles to 30 miles is a monumental jump. In sports and in business alike, we are faced with the challenge of continuous personal development and achieving maximum performance to reach our goals. In both worlds it is necessary to establish a strategy, impose a work discipline, measure results, make changes to the status quo, make mistakes, learn from them and try again.

Rafa began his preparations for the swimming challenge, named the Triple Crowne, eight months before the competition. To prepare, he swam more than 497 miles during his training sessions while seeking the perfect stroke.

Mental strength

Athletes and business leaders must set and achieve ambitious goals. Often, to be successful in achieving these goals, teamwork is necessary. Leaders must learn the skills required to inspire and motivate others within the business, and often that is by demonstrating their own commitment and passion. The steadfast belief that we can reach our goals is often the mental strength required to execute projects with impactful results, despite tough circumstances.

During his training, Rafa learned to control his emotions and thoughts in order to face difficult moments during the nine arduous hours it took to complete the swim. Such an incredible challenge brought with it many feelings of doubt, unease and of course physical pain, as he pushed his mind and body further than ever before. However, over time his training would kick-in and guidance from his coaches would prevail.

Five hours into the swim, he began to feel a very strong pain in his right shoulder, and doubt that he could continue crept in. Hearing him reflect on that moment after the swim has stayed with me for weeks. He said, “I stopped concentrating on that pain. In my mind, I transformed the discomfort I felt with each stroke. I remembered all the tools I had learnt during the previous eight months, and little by little the pain disappeared. When I thought I was over it, the same pain started in the left shoulder. It was like it was chasing me. I started with my mental routine again. I was not going to let myself be defeated. Thankfully, I made it disappear once more so that I could continue with my journey”.

Perhaps the same can be said for business. If we have strong processes, controls and training in place to ensure our greatest minds and ideas are protected and nurtured, we can remove physical barriers and resolve problems that stand in the way of achieving our business goals.

Adapting to thrive, not just survive

I believe the COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably enrolled us on a master class on adaptation, and that many have graduated with honors as a result. However, some businesses and leaders over the last 18 months have been caught out by the ever-changing, complex new world in which they now operate.

During the pandemic, many economic sectors and countless companies struggled because they failed to pre-empt and recognize the changes that were taking place around them. They showed little agility and were left behind as a result. Those who were successful, on the other hand, knew how to ride the wave. Just like Rafa.

Commenting on his experiences of the swim, he continued, “When I entered the Hudson River there were six-foot waves and a headwind. The waves were picking me up and when I fell, my arm couldn't find the water, so I had to change my rhythm. I started to take breaks waiting for the wave to descend and only activating my movements then. I drastically changed my stroke. The river shook me from my monotony. That helped me to refocus, stop thinking about the pain and within minutes I even started having fun”.

Always strive for more

The essence of business and sports is in the competitive spirit. How can you expect to stay on top if you don't invest time in making improvements every day? Making a commitment to acquire new knowledge and skills is imperative to success in both areas. This was more clear than ever when only two hours after finishing the mammoth nine hour swim, an exhausted Rafa, told me, “Now I have to concentrate on the crossing of the Santa Catalina Channel taking place in 2022, which is a 12 hours swim at night.”

You can read more about Rafa’s latest achievement here