Many athletes can tell you the leadership skills they gained from sports. Employers often echo their sentiments.
For example, athletes recognize the importance of teamwork and trust, they know how to deal with adversity and conflict, and they know how to think strategically and shift course when necessary.
In the workplace, the prevailing wisdom seems to be that athletes have skills that are useful in their careers. Most of this wisdom is anecdotal, but some academic research has delved into the ways athletes learn to be leaders with more research on the horizon aimed at this topic.
One study published in Human Kinetics in 2017 looked at how athletic participation and other factors affect students’ leadership skills. Student-athletes scored significantly higher than non-athletes in overall transformational leadership, particularly in two indicators of transformational leadership: management of self (including attitudes toward oneself and consideration for others’ well-being) and management of feelings (including motivating coworkers to elicit feelings of competence and meaning from their work).
“Participation in sport built confidence and character in high-pressure situations. Student-athletes needed to manage change and failure on a continuous competitive basis. They needed to encourage and influence team members to pursue team goals rather than individual praises,” the study authors wrote. “Relatively, non-student-athletes have less of an opportunity to put these concepts to practice in real-life scenarios.”
That study reinforced the results of one published in Adolescence in 1999, which found high school athletes outscored non-athlete peers on a measure of leadership ability. “It adds further evidence to the theory that the types of personal and social behavior associated with athletic training and participation may indeed increase, or at least strengthen, high school students' leadership potential,” the study noted.
Research from Ernst & Young has focused on how women build leadership skills through sports. Ninety-four percent of women in the C-suite played sports; 52 percent of women in the C-suite played at the university level; and 77 percent of C-suite women think women who played sports make good employees, according to one report from EY and espnW.
In another report, “Why Female Athletes Make Winning Entrepreneurs,” EY and espnW interviewed women entrepreneurs around the world who had played sports, and they said they developed leadership, confidence, single-mindedness, passion and resilience as athletes. Regarding leadership, the report noted: “The athlete entrepreneurs explain that playing sport has given them a strong grounding in what it means to be on a team — on both practical and emotional levels. And they are using that sports mindset to establish the high-performing teams required to grow their companies.”
In a 2014 survey of women executives by EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW, 74 percent said a background in sport can help accelerate a woman’s career, and 61 percent said involvement in sports contributed to their career success. The top leadership skill the respondents said sport developed was the ability to see projects through to completion.
A study published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies in 2014 looked at men who had participated in varsity-level high school sports decades earlier. The study found they “appeared to demonstrate higher levels of leadership and had higher-status careers.”
These studies offer useful insight. But more comprehensive research on leadership lessons from sports is lacking. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics hopes to fill some of that void. Sandy Hatfield Clubb, senior partner of the Pictor Group and consultant to the Knight Commission, is collaborating on a proposal for academic research on student learning outcomes, related to leadership learning through sport.
Assessing what athletes learn about leadership is difficult, in part because getting access to student-athletes and measurable data can be complicated, Clubb noted. A former athletic director at Drake University, Clubb has seen how sports develop leaders.
“I think all student-athletes pick up extraordinary leadership skills, whether that’s analytical and critical thinking, teamwork, or — probably the biggest one — persevering through adversity. It’s the capacity to get to plan B when plan A isn’t working,” she said.
Sport offers powerful lessons on accountability, Clubb said. If you’re an athlete, “we put you out in the middle of a field — or whatever your playing field is — and then a whole bunch of people watch, and we keep score,” she explained. “It’s a much different type of accountability than other types of experiences that you might have on a college campus.”
“With every play, you’re earning your opportunity to play or not in the next snap or game,” Clubb said. “It’s a highly accountable, performance-driven activity.”
Student-athletes gain all these skills, but the problem is that many of them are not taught how to use them outside of sports, Clubb said. “We just expect them to go out and use it, versus intentionally helping them understand what they’re learning, how to articulate it, and then how to leverage that as they start to build on their career.”
Clubb said that at Drake, the athletic department was trying to help student-athletes “actually see their student-athlete experience as something that was fundamental to their learning,” so they could articulate their skills to prospective employers and grad programs. Clubb recalled a softball player who applied to medical school with an essay that explained how, “for four years, she learned what it meant to act with integrity, and this is what it looks like: It means to be true to my word — it applies to systems, to organizations, and to people — and how a person stays in integrity is staying true to their word.”
How well are athletic departments and teams enabling athletes to internalize these lessons? Athletes gain emotional toughness, balance, integrity and the ability to have difficult conversations, said Matthew Davidson, Ph.D., president of the Institute for Excellence & Ethics (IEE), which assesses and builds leadership development and organizational culture. But athletes don’t automatically pick up these lessons, he said. “There’s no reason to believe that it just naturally happens. Sure, these are partly ‘caught,’ but they also must be intentionally taught.”
So IEE works to build strength of character and intentional culture, to ensure “that the espoused values of the department form the foundation of the lived experience of the student-athlete through each individual team,” Davidson said. It provides tools and strategies for individual and collective practice. This approach includes talking about what integrity and leadership look like in regard to hazing and sexual assault, for example, he said.
Athletes gain experience having tough conversations, which teach them how to “manage conflict, challenge a fellow team member, how to listen, but also how to lean in and make their voice heard,” Davidson noted.
There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that sport helps equip leaders. A Fast Company article lays out “Why Your Next Employee Should Be a Former Student Athlete,” and concludes athletes are achievement-oriented, team-oriented, resilient, strong communicators and good time managers. An Inc. article offers “7 Reasons Athletes Make the Best Employees.” In “Game On: Leadership Lessons from Athlete-Executives,” four nonprofit executives explain the nuances of the lessons they learned as athletes. And upcoming academic research may provide more empirical evidence of what sport teaches.
Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.