Knowledge Mindfulness Stories from Five Sporting Legends

When I tell people about knowledge mindfulness, one of the first things they ask me for is an example: “What does a knowledge mindful leader look like? Can you give me an example of what knowledge mindfulness can actually do for me and my team?”

Often, I’m talking to business leaders, so I find myself giving examples from the world of business. Executives like Richard Branson, or Oprah Winfrey, or Ratan Tata all have important strengths that highlight the ways that knowledge mindfulness helps individuals and organizations to reach new heights. They lead with brain, heart, and soul to connect with others and make smarter, more responsible decisions.

But it’s important to remember that knowledge mindfulness isn’t just for business leaders. Knowledge mindfulness focuses on both the whole, and the parts of which it’s comprised — and that means it can have a powerful impact across countless different personal and professional areas of our lives. 

In the field of sports, for instance, it’s often possible to point to stars whose successes were made possible not just by athletic talent, but also by their use of the techniques of knowledge mindfulness. Here are a few sporting heroes whose uses of knowledge mindfulness hold important lessons for the rest of us:

  • Lionel Messi. The Argentinian soccer star has won every medal or trophy that the sport has to offer, and could reportedly have made well over $1 billion by spending the twilight of his career playing for super-wealthy teams. Instead, Messi moved to Miami to play for the sheer joy of the game he loves — and the results have been incredible. 

Messi’s unique talent carried his team — Inter Miami, previously an underdog — to the final of the U.S. Open Cup. Thanks to Messi-mania, meanwhile, US sports fans are embracing soccer in a whole new way. Messi isn’t hurting for cash, of course. But by putting joy and fulfillment before financial reward, he’s improved the entire ecosystem of which he’s part — and had a far more significant impact on the world of sport. 

The key lesson: Seek joy and fulfillment, not just financial and tangible rewards, as you climb the ladder and establish yourself in your chosen career.

  1. Simone Biles. The greatest gymnast of our time (or any other) is preternaturally gifted. But her greatest asset is arguably her self-understanding. When Biles suffered from the “twisties” during the 2020 Summer Olympics, and lost her ability to keep track of her location in the air while completing dizzying spins and flips, she had the knowledge maturity to understand that things weren’t working — inside and out — and stepped back from her medal campaign. 

If Biles had pushed ahead, she could have suffered a career-ending injury. Instead, she took time to reflect and gain more self-knowledge that aligned with her context — then came back stronger than ever. Today, Biles is one of the oldest gymnasts on the circuit, but she’s still leaving other rivals in the dust. Notably, she’s doing it with a spotter in place for her most difficult routines — a nod both to her heightened self-understanding and her commitment to pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in her field, and evolving her knowledge maturity along the way.

The key lesson: Acknowledge and work to understand the challenges you face in the context you’re in, and you’ll find ways to overcome or navigate around them by elevating your knowledge maturity.

  1. Ben Stokes. The talismanic English cricket captain suffered a crisis of confidence that almost ended his career, and wound up taking an indefinite leave of absence to work on his mental health. When he came back to the game, it was with a new outlook that focused not on avoiding defeat, but on relentlessly striving for victory. The result: a thrilling approach to cricket that has drawn new generations of fans to the sport.

Stokes’ leadership is defined not just by aggression, but by a mindful understanding of risk. By telling his team that it’s OK to fail sometimes, as long as it’s in pursuit of victory, Stokes has emerged as an inspirational leader. His team is known for pulling off remarkable victories — but more importantly, Stokes is known for getting the best out of players who might otherwise have lost hope. 

The key lesson: The only true failure lies in not striving to succeed. Give your team permission to make mistakes — and thus evolve their knowledge — and they’ll deliver more than you’d dreamed possible.

  1. Jennifer Hermoso. The Spanish women’s soccer star was on top of the world, having just won the Women’s World Cup, when the powerful head of the Spanish football federation, Luis Rubiales, planted an unwanted kiss on her lips. Hermoso responded by speaking up — and when Rubiales lashed out, the entire women’s soccer team closed ranks and announced they wouldn’t play under his leadership, forcing him to step down.

Hermoso isn’t just courageous. She’s also a model in leading by example. Known for her resilience and grit on the pitch, she has a deep understanding of her values and what she stands for. That allowed her to take a stand at a difficult time and gave others the courage to act, too. In doing so, she challenged a male-dominated sport to rethink its treatment of women — and ultimately came out on top. 

The key lesson: With courage and integrity — traits that reflect a high level of knowledge maturity — it’s possible to change the world and use your energy to bring others along on the journey.

  1. Ted Lasso. Okay, Ted Lasso is a fictional character, but he’s also a truly great role model for knowledge mindful leaders, and it would be a crime to leave him off this list. Lasso is a soccer coach who knows nothing about soccer, but who cares deeply about helping others to become the best possible version of themselves. 

Lasso combines deep empathy with a willingness to be vulnerable. Instead of acting like he has all the answers, he’s constantly asking questions and trying to get others to explain things to him. Often, that understanding gives Ted important new insights into the problems he’s exploring — and inspires others to use their knowledge more effectively, too. 

The key lesson: Asking questions shows humbleness, but by having the confidence to integrate new learnings into your life you’ll get better and richer experiences. You’ll get better results, and ultimately bring out the best in your team.

Sadly, we can’t all be blessed with David Beckham’s right foot or Serena Williams’ powerful forehand. What we can do, though, is try to notice and internalize the knowledge mindfulness mindset and tactics, and resulting leadership qualities, that our sporting heroes bring to their lives on and off the field. Their examples should be a part of the knowledge we mindfully draw into our own lives, experiment with, and make our own.

In fact, understanding and practicing the principles, processes, and tactics of knowledge mindfulness in this way is the only way to truly incorporate it into our own lives. Our goal should be to find strong examples of knowledge mindfulness all around us and integrate them into our leadership practices, our communications, and our behaviors and actions in general.

So take a minute to think about it: how do you see knowledge mindfulness at work in the sports that you love to follow? Are there players or coaches you think use knowledge mindfulness to elevate their game — or to elevate those around them, and drive broader impact in the world? Who are the sporting heroes you see elevating and evolving themselves across all the dimensions in which they operate? And how are you drawing on their example to drive not only tangible success, but intangible success in areas such as happiness, fulfillment, and growth?