Sports has given me many things over the years. It’s kept me fit, taught me skills, made new friends and it’s kept me out of trouble. Sure, I’ll never be a pro athlete earning tens of millions of dollars with my face plastered across billboards, but, for the most part, I’ve loved my journey playing different sports.
If you’ll let me indulge for a moment, I’d like to share what I’ve discovered as I shuffled from sport to sport, and what it’s taught me about selling stuff when I hit pen to paper.
So without further ado, here’s what I learned about writing and the wins and losses I posted on the board.
The first sport I laced my boots up for was soccer. I played for more years than I can remember. What I do recall is the team’s line-up went unchanged for ten years. We grew up playing together. We understood each other’s positions. We dominated, and the wins piled up. But when we lost—which we did from time to time—it was heartbreaking.
That heartbreak led to my gripe with soccer and team sports in general — winning (and losing) wasn’t in my hands. It was in the hands of ten other players on my team. But that gripe turned into frustration as I kept playing. I fell out of love with the beautiful game, and like most break-ups, we haven’t seen each other since calling it quits.
Yet I didn’t sit still for long. I moved from the soccer pitch to the gym floor. One afternoon while poking around the labyrinth that was my local gym, I wandered into a side room. It was nothing more than four bare walls, some tired-looking boxing gear, and a stench of sweat that made my old soccer club’s locker room smell like a bouquet of roses.
Amongst it all, a strapping bloke in his mid-40s was pummeling a punching bag. His hands whipped the bag like fast-moving piston rods in a V8 engine. Every couple of seconds he rejigged his combinations: jab-straight, jab-jab-uppercut, jab-straight-hook. It was a violent ballet. And it was at that exact moment I knew I had found the sport for me.
Turns out that bloke was a boxing coach, so I booked a few lessons with him. He taught me the fundamentals: striking, footwork, ring control. He also taught me that, win or lose, it was on me — there’s no one else to shoulder a loss.
In our final session, my coach left me with seriously sage advice: the winner of a boxing bout isn’t decided in the ring. It’s decided on morning runs before the sun peaks over the horizon, in round after round on the punching bag, and during marathon sparring sessions.
But this advice isn’t just for aspiring boxers. Believe it or not, writing parallels the fight game.
For instance, both disciplines require the same level of hard labour to get good. Thousands of hours of training, studying, fine-tuning and analysing what those who came before did to win. What’s more, talent can only get you so far. An unwavering obsession to be great is what separates the wheat from the chaff.
It’s why prolific writers like Stephen King churn out mega-successful stories like a printing press, and it’s why hall of fame boxers like Floyd Mayweather retired undefeated, minting $450 million in prize money along the way. But I digress.
As much as I loved boxing, I never had wins like I had with copywriting. Maybe it’s because I never saw myself becoming a pro fighter, but I did see myself becoming a pro writer. So I did what my old coach taught me.
I put the work in behind the scenes. This meant studying the copywriting giants — David Ogilvy, Richard Foster, David Abbott, Tom McElligott, John Carlton and Joe Sugarman, to name a few. I dismantled their copy line by line, trying to unravel how these madmen constructed ads that moved billions of dollars worth of goods and services.
Yet the most interesting fact I discovered during those long nights toiling away was those copywriters, like boxers, didn’t have a team of people around them to produce winning work. Rather, they sat behind the desk or around the kitchen table with a pen in hand and a blank sheet of paper in front, burning the midnight oil and churning out one great ad after another.