Why do female athletes make good leaders?

By Rory Cellucci on May 19, 2015

I played sports as a kid simply because I loved playing sports. And while I didn’t really think about it at the time, I definitely enjoyed the well-documented benefits of athletics—developing fitness, self-esteem, social skills, and the ability to play on a team and deal with occasional disappointment.

But as I look back on my career as a high school and later Division 1 college athlete, I’ve come to appreciate that the lessons I learned playing sports continue to pay huge dividends in my life and career. And according to a recent survey produced by Ernst and Young that’s the case for many female business leaders today.

According to the report: “The vast majority (90%) of the women surveyed had played sports either at primary and secondary school, or during university or other tertiary education, with this proportion rising to 96% among C-suite women.”

The survey also found that almost three-quarters (72%) of women agree that individuals who engage in sports at some level, or have done so, participate more effectively within teams than those who have not had this experience. A similar number (76%) of women also agree that adopting behaviors and techniques from sports to the corporate environment can be an effective way of improving the performance of teams.”

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Their research shows that the link between career success and participation in sports lies in the ability to develop hard and soft skills—being able to motivate a team, exercise self-discipline, and develop the ability to see a project through to completion, among many other things—that playing sports teaches all athletes.

I’d add the level at which you competed not only instills, but demands four essential qualities—discipline, presence, balance, and the ability to receive feedback—that most successful leaders possess.

Discipline

Whether it is getting up at the crack of dawn to get that run in because you know you have absolutely no time to do it during the day. Or going to bed early on weekends when your friends are going out because you have a game the next day. Or by pushing yourself past what you think should be your breaking point; you learn that success is not just dependent on skill but also discipline. And that’s something that you can only learn by doing.

Presence

I remember one of the first days of my freshmen year of college sitting in a room with my entire track team listening to our Athletic Director talk about presence. He told us how we are a representation of our school and as 19- to 22-year-olds we were expected to live up to a pretty high standard. I remember signing documents that stated how we must act while in our uniforms. At the time I thought this seemed silly and unnecessary but now I know it’s not. The way you present yourself is everything in life; whether it is racing in a track meet or sitting in a board meeting, you are your own representative.

Balance

Work-life balance is a popular leadership topic these days, and as an athlete, balance is something you must learn rather quickly. Instead of balancing a job and a family you are balancing a sport, school, and friends. At one point in my college career I was practicing 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. One night, after back-to-back practices and classes, I walked into my dorm and one of my roommates/closest friends said, “Hi stranger, do you even live here anymore?” I realized between practice, class, and studying I hadn’t seen even the people I lived with in several days. I had put so much focus on school and track that I forgot about other important parts of my life. Sometimes all it takes is a quick reality check to remind you of the importance of balance.

Receiving feedback

Competing at a Division 1 level means the pressure is high and the expectations are higher and when you aren’t reaching those expectations, whether at practice or during a race, you will hear it. Like a good manager, it is a coach’s job to tell you when you are doing well and just as importantly, to tell you when you are not. At the age of 19, just like my older teammates, I had to learn to take any type of feedback as a positive thing and turn it into motivation. It is easy to take negative feedback, whether it is from a coach or a manager, and let it break you down. But the secret of feedback is learning how it can make you successful.

Of course, athletic participation is by no means a stand-alone test to determine leadership potential. In fact, you don’t need to be an athlete at all to learn valuable leadership skills and improve as a leader.

But it won’t hurt either.

Learn more here.

And we’d love to hear your thoughts. Below, please share how the lessons you learned in childhood (either athletic or not) have helped you in your life and career.

Posted in Inclusive Leadership, Women in Leadership Tagged with: ,

About Rory Cellucci

Rory Cellucci is passionate about advancing women leaders.

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