Over the past few weeks I’ve shared examples of defying conventional wisdom via the historic story of the Trojan Horse, the lesser-known example of Ignac Semmelweis from the world of medicine and most recently the example of setting seemingly unrealistic goals from the political arena. This week I jump to the world of sports, an area with rich parallels to business strategy. Let’s look at the origins of some of the world’s most popular sports, which is a nice way to tie the topic of unconventional thinking back to childhood playing.
Legend has it that during a game of soccer in 1823, William Webb Ellis, a sixteen-year-old student at the Rugby School in England, caught the ball in a moment of spontaneous improvisation and started running with it toward the opponent’s goal line. Thus the game of rugby was born. Running with the ball was officially allowed in 1841, and rugby went on to become the foundation for both American and Australian football.
What about the origin of basketball? This sport had an equally unusual, even oxymoronic beginning. Back in 1891, in the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, a young physical education teacher was frustrated by the unusually long and harsh winter, which prevented his students from going outdoors to exercise. He tried to fabricate indoor versions of both lacrosse and soccer, but neither was successful.
So he nailed a peach basket to the balcony at both ends of the school gym and defined the object of the game as throwing a soccer ball into the opposing team’s basket. He divided the students into two teams and made up a few rules. Initially, the ball had to be retrieved from the baskets with the help of a ladder. Basket ball, as it was known back then, was thus conceived, and it went on to become one of the world’s most popular sports—a game invented by combining formerly incompatible, common objects in a new way. Like we did all the time when we were kids. In this instance, an unusually harsh environment was the cradle of invention.
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