By Aoife Barry
The sports world is littered with successful stars who have made the transition to business: from Venus and Serena Williams to Magic Johnson and George Foreman.
They were canny enough to know that as elite sports careers can end when you’re still young, you need to have something lined up.
But what all of them also have in common is that the skills they learned as athletes would benefit them hugely in the workplace.
There are sporty women at the helm or high up in many major sports and athletic companies – like Whoop, Burton, Puma, and Patagonia.
Meanwhile, a global study of male and female C-Suite executives conducted by EY and espnW between 2013 and 2016 found that 94 per cent of women executives have a background in sport, and over half participated at university levels.
In addition, 61 per cent of the women executives who responded believed playing sports contributed positively to their career success and advancement.
Now, a new study from Deloitte has found that women who played competitive sports in their youth are more likely to be in leadership or management roles.
Eighty-five percent of surveyed women who played sports say the skills they developed were important to success in their professional careers, and the findings are even higher among women in leadership roles (91 per cent) and women who make $100,000 or more (93 per cent).
Of the female respondents who make $100,000 or more annually and are in management or leadership roles, 69 per cent have played competitive sports.
So, what sorts of skills could they have learned on the field, track, or in the pool that went on to benefit them in work?
Competition and communication
If you’ve spent any time on a sports team or pursuing individual sports (yes, even those swimming and basketball lessons at school), you’ll know the skills needed to achieve success.
For example, teamwork can be tricky, so you learn how to navigate the various personalities of your teammates. Understanding how to communicate with people successfully is also an essential workplace skill.
You also learn through sports that participation isn’t about ego: you need to be doing your best on behalf of the entire team (though if you’re lucky, you might be named person of the match.)
Think of the Tour de France, and how team members support their leader in the peloton, chasing down breakaways and protecting him from competitors (and the wind). Only one member will get to wear the yellow jersey, but it’s still a team win.
Individual sports also have plenty to teach people, particularly as they require serious mental fortitude to perform on your own.
But these sports are rarely completed without the help of someone else, like a coach or a manager. Solo or as part of a team, sports will teach you about goal-setting, strategy, and the confidence to keep going.
Sports aren’t all about winning, so you also learn a lot about resilience. Even elite athletes know that not every day is theirs: the Williams sisters are legends, but they’ve suffered losses too. They’ve even faced off against each other, which must have been a serious test emotionally and physically.
In the workplace, you’ll always be trying to do your best, but within the framework of your team and workplace as a whole.
Like an athlete, employees need to be confident and clear on their goals and the steps to get there. If you get knocked back – fail to make a target, or to secure that new client – you need to know how to get up again, and quickly.
If you’ve been on a team that’s suffered through its own losses, you’ll know plenty about bouncing back.
Sports field to boardroom
In the past decade, there have been hugely positive strides for women in sport globally. For example, Nielsen found earlier this year that 41 per cent of the global population were excited for the Women’s World Cup, a rise from 34 per cent before the 2019 event.
The old adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” applies here, with increased visibility of women’s support subsequently inspiring young girls and women to get involved themselves.
That said, there’s always room for improvement, and men still practise sports more than women in Europe.
But for women who do play sports, they can have confidence in knowing they’re directly contributing to gender balance in this arena.
If you’re applying for a new role, you could highlight your experience in sports, no matter how long ago it was. It will show an employer that you learned some essential skills – like communication, goal-setting, teamwork, and resilience – which they will be happy to see on your CV.
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