Have you ever felt left out during a casual client discussion that somehow evolved into a spirited recap of the previous night’s Final Four stunner or felt like an awkward outsider during pre-meeting banter about the latest college football phenom or first round draft pick? If so, you’re not alone. While sports are undeniably a healthy obsession for many professionals of all backgrounds, some of us just aren’t avid sports fans and others wouldn’t know the difference between a line of scrimmage and a pick and roll. Unfortunately, this leaves many colleagues awkwardly out of the conversation. Seattle Seahawks sideline reporter and 20-year sports broadcasting veteran, Jen Mueller rejects the idea that anyone should be left out of the conversation, and she offers simple tips that any professional can use to feel more confident chiming in.
With decades of experience working in a male-dominated environment, Mueller’s communications business Talk Sporty to Me offers non-sports fans (oftentimes but certainly not always women) keen insight into how they too can engage in workplace conversations focused around sports. Given the fact that the majority of U.S. adults are sports fans, Mueller insists, “Learning to talk about sports for business, whether you are a fan or not, is invaluable in the workplace.” Furthermore, she insists that “sports talk” can be a powerful relationship building tool. “Sports fans talk to other sports fans; it’s as simple as that,” she insists. “It means sports small talk is a powerful tool in connecting with others, building relationships and growing your network.”
For the least sports savvy among us, Mueller offers some valuable, practical tips.
Don’t fake it. While it may be tempting at times, Mueller advises against faking it during a sports discussion. “If a colleague asks what you thought about a game you didn’t watch, don’t try to fake your way through the conversation,” she insists. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that you didn’t watch the game. Go ahead and mention what you were up to and then ask your colleague for his/her synopsis of the game or opinion on what happened.” People appreciate authenticity so pretending to be something you’re not is typically a recipe for disaster.
Stick with what you know. Sports commentary can get very detailed very quickly so don’t pretend to be an expert. “Don’t feel pressure to contribute to a conversation that’s over your head,” insists Mueller. “We all have to start somewhere. You’re not a fraud or a faker because you know the final score of the game, but don’t know advanced statistics and sabermetrics. Your contribution to the conversation could be as an active listener.” In fact, listening offers a valuable opportunity to continue to learn about sports related topics that you might find intrinsically interesting so don’t minimize the benefit of engaging by actively listening.
Build your knowledge slowly. Mueller advises against the drinking from a firehose approach and instead suggests taking baby steps for building sports knowledge. “Start by knowing the names of teams in your town or region, then build your name recognition of a specific player or coach.” she suggests. “Start small by reading just the headlines; they will give you a strong enough overview to stay in the loop and build your sports knowledge base. Plus, it’s probably what sports fans are talking about anyway.”
Find natural ways to connect to the conversation. Even if the conversation has progressed past your knowledge or interest level, there are still opportunities to participate in an authentic and organic way. “Introduce sports adjacent topics like your favorite restaurant near the ballpark or traffic concerns over getting to a dinner meeting the same night thousands of people are trying to get to the stadium a mile away,” she advises. “Use an opponent’s location or a player’s hometown as a jumping off point for conversation about travel or vacation. This works especially well for big games like the Super Bowl, All-Star games, golf/tennis majors.”
It’s important to remember that becoming more comfortable participating in sports conversations doesn’t mean you need to pretend you’re something you’re not. If you’ve never really followed a sport, consider becoming a casual viewer to see if there’s an authentic interest. Sports are wildly popular for a reason—they’re generally engaging and interesting to a wide swath of people from different backgrounds. Reject the mindset that sports conversations aren’t for you and instead consider diving in—in your own way—to help build new connections or reinforce existing ones.