How Sport Cultivates Leadership

EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW recently released research findings that sports can help accelerate women’s leadership and career advancement.  Of the 400 executive women surveyed, “74% agree that a background in sport can help accelerate a woman’s leadership and career potential.”

There is a black belt there!

Although I am not (yet) an executive, playing sports has had a huge impact on my career and life in general.  Among other sports, I played basketball until my senior year of high school and am a second degree black belt in TaeKwonDo.  I learned a lot about teamwork and working for the greater good in basketball.  Martial arts taught me self-respect and to respect others, self-discipline, and how to be a positive role-model.  Both sports have contributed to development of the life skills I have now, and I believe any sport can help facilitate the development of fundamental leadership skills.

Social Skills
In his book, Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, writes how face-to-face interaction develops a baby’s brain more quickly than anything else.  Equally, scientific research has found that social interaction, as opposed to electronics, toys, or other inanimate objects, develop a child’s brain most efficiently.  Sports require social interaction.  Team sports teach communication, teamwork, encouragement, and relying on others.  Even in predominately individual sports like tennis or skiing, the individual make up a greater whole – a team.    The world likes teamwork and the business world is no exception.  The better we can read body language, communicate our needs and desires, show empathy toward others, and respond in culturally acceptable ways, the better we are as leaders and as team members.

Time Management
I don’t mean time management in how to get more things done – you can read my thoughts on that in my previous post here.  I am talking about managing one’s time in order to learn punctuality and efficiency.  In both basketball and TaeKwonDo, if you were late to practice/class, there were consequences.  Sometimes the whole team paid the consequence for your  tardiness.  Isn’t that true in business?  If you are late on a project there is usually a domino affect and it affects everyone.

If you played sports while in school, you had an extra schedule to maintain.  Your academic and sport performance were your responsibility.  I believe there is a balance of responsibility each of us needs; if you have too little or too great responsibility, mistakes get made or things fall through the cracks.  Whether or not things fell too far on either ends of the spectrum, they were relevant in teaching responsibility.

You are responsible for you.  Sport can be a great teacher of this.  Each individual is accountable for being present, being focused, and being prepared.  If you weren’t, you let your team down.  In individual sports, you let yourself and those who believe in you down.  Professionals are accountable for the same principles –especially leadership.  Those who don’t hold themselves accountable generally aren’t respected leadership.

The higher you advance in sports, the more tenacity is a key component to success.  The more advanced the level, the more serious the competition and the greater the chance of failing.  This is when tenacity and discipline really develop.  Effective leadership must be tenacious when appropriate – encouraging others to keep persevering and trying new approaches to succeed.  Good leaders don’t back down every time they hear the word “no,”  but they do have good judgement to know when a play isn’t working.

The female executives surveyed in the article (full article here) list persistence, ambition and drive, and confidence as the most important contributors to their current career success.  I would agree and add that even as an adult, I continue to develop these with sports and activities.  Have sports helped you in your career?  Do you notice a difference in personal development depending on the different types of sports you’ve played?



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