APPOORVA MURALINATH

5 Business Lessons from Basketball Pro and Coach Apoorva Muralinath

Appoorva Muralinath has a unique career trajectory.

When she was growing up, she was largely unaware that her father was an Indian basketball star and an Olympian in his youth. Inspired by this revelation, Muralinath took up the sport herself and discovered she had real potential. She was determined to succeed, and progressed painstakingly though school, local, and national teams, finally representing India professionally. The journey took her fourteen years and featured many setbacks.

Although she’d worked incredibly hard to excel, she wanted to travel to a country where basketball had a much higher profile, particularly for women, and where her team could compete internationally. As she transitioned into coaching, she got the opportunity to travel to the US, starting at Dean University in Massachusetts, and then moving to the Ivy League at Williams College, where she currently coaches.

In our talk, Muralinath was keen to stress that she believes sport and business are intimately commented, and that there are vital lessons you can take from one to the other. We discussed five key lessons in our fascinating and revealing session.

LESSON ONE: EMPATHY IS KEY TO TEAMWORK

In team sports, individual achievement means nothing if you can’t be a team player. Everyone has different backgrounds, challenges, and strengths. As Muralinath puts it, “[other team members] have not been exposed to the same kind of things that you are. So, you have to understand […] that you need to put your team first”.

Empathy is essential, in sports and business. Making allowances for different backgrounds, skill levels and appreciating the different contributions your colleagues can make, are vital. You must find the balance between collaboration and owning your own contribution.

Or in Muralinath’s concise rendition: “what you give is what you get.”

LESSON TWO: ALWAYS BE COACHABLE

No matter how senior or experienced you may be, it’s vital still to listen to criticism and remain humble enough to appreciate well-intentioned advice. Leaders must practice what they preach, Muralinath explains, by being approachable and willing to listen and learn. This, in turn, will make colleagues more likely to respect your lead.

When teaching a new skill, Muralinath is always asking questions, the better to understand any difficulties her team members will face. Open-ended conversation is best, rather than leading questions. Your goal is to use your skills and experience to help the whole team (organization) achieve its collective goals.

Coaches are evaluated as well as their players, so its important to listen to feedback in good faith and improve yourself as both a professional and an individual.

LESSON THREE: WORK ON YOUR COMMUNICATION SKILLS

Muralinath believes there’s more to communication than mere words – body language conveys a lot of meaning, perhaps even more so in sport, where players live by their bodies. However, even in the more mental realms of business, improving communication skills should be an ongoing duty.

An example Muralinath gives is trying to provide motivation but conveying disinterest through poor body posture – it won’t convince, since people always pick up on nonverbal cues. Good communication is a combination of the right words, the right tone and having real empathy.

These communication skills (empathy, listening, tone, word choice, body posture) are just as vital when talking to peers, employees, and bosses – throughout the hierarchy, in short.

Confidence in body language can be key to being a good leader. How people appraise you when you enter a room to motivate a team can make all the difference. The disconnect between how you feel inside and what you project can be very surprising. It’s worth eliciting honest feedback so that you can improve.

Muralinath believes it’s a lot more to do with energy than physical traits or dress: “I don’t wear a lot of makeup. My hair is not always perfect. I’m usually in some form of exercise clothes, […] but I think, maybe focus on the energy that I […] can bring. And that be what people see rather than the fact that I’m not in Chanel or Prada.”

LESSON FOUR: DEVELOP RESILIENCE FROM WITHIN

Muralinath is very clear where her resilience comes from. “Resilience is listening to your own voice,” she says. “Insight in your own head, your best cheerleader.”  Furthermore, you must “tell that inner voice to treat you right” and learn not to dwell upon the negative.

Although you can consult with friends, colleagues, teammates, in the final analysis, only you can make the decisions that will affect the course of your life. As Muralinath puts it, “You can take inputs, but how to fix it and what you need to do to fix it is going to come from you.”

Your career will inevitably involve ups and downs. In fact, Muralinath believes this is what makes life more enjoyable – overcoming difficulties to achieve success is just more satisfying. An example she gives is her seven-year struggle to get into the Indian national team, a journey which came with a lot of rejections. She says, “I’m in a better place now, only because I went through that.”

Being strong enough to learn from adversity (rejections, injuries) and bounce back conveys a huge advantage in sport or in business.

LESSON FIVE: THERE’S NO ESCAPING ACCOUNTABILITY

It’s perhaps more obvious in sport than in any other field, but you must learn to own your individual performance. Living up to the expectations you set for yourself is an expression of accepting your own accountability. As Muralinath puts it, “I think a disciplined lifestyle is accountable.”

Certainly, as a coach, you can’t lead if you don’t accept the part which you personally play in any failure. To gain respect from teammates, or colleagues, its important to accept responsibility both internally and externally. To listen, learn and improve.

As our fascinating talk with this basketball legend revealed, business and sport require a lot of overlapping skills and we can be champions even if we are hitting sales targets, rather than scoring match-winning baskets.