When you think of sports, you likely imagine the latest football game you watched on TV or the volleyball club you participate in every spring.
However, sports offer much more than entertainment and general wellness — they’re also a precursor of leadership success, according to one recent EY study.
EY’s research shows that 94% of women executives participate in sports. Whether that means the occasional trip to the golf course or a dedicated spot on the local CrossFit team, sports participation offers valuable benefits to current and future women leaders, such as familiarity with competition, strong team-building skills, and overall confidence.
Women represent about half of the American workforce. However, equal female representation in the workplace doesn’t translate to management roles or executive positions.
Women don’t lack the technical expertise to handle leadership roles. In fact, women outnumber men when it comes to secondary education: 46% of women ages 25 to 34 hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to just 36% of men in the same age group.
Clearly, a barrier is preventing women from ascending the corporate ladder. This is likely due to many factors, such as taking time away from careers to raise children, the long-standing bias toward male leadership, and certain intrinsic elements like a tendency toward people-pleasing.
It will likely take time to see more women move into leadership roles. However, in the meantime, companies that want to see more gender diversity among their female leaders should look to women who participate in sports.
Sports are common in American society. Many children grow up playing sports, whether on school teams or in local clubs. Sports help children become more well-rounded. Rather than focusing solely on their studies or their friends, they gain an outlet that benefits their physical and mental well-being.
After high school, sports participation tends to drop off. College teams are much more selective of their players, although students can often join clubs that are less competitive. Graduates struggle to maintain sports participation, particularly if they have families or heavy work schedules.
However, women who continue to participate in sports see significant benefits that overlap with other parts of their lives, particularly in their careers.
Participating in a sport isn’t just a means to maintain weight or alleviate stress (although both benefits can positively impact a career). Sports require the development of unique team-building, problem-solving, and goal-setting skills that are critical in executive and senior leadership roles.
Women who are involved in competitive sports — especially those requiring teamwork — must learn to collaborate with peers they would otherwise have no relationship with outside the sports team.
For instance, when a person joins a softball team, they are assigned a position, like catcher or third baseman. Whatever their role is, they’ll need to cooperate with other players on the team. They can’t rely solely on themselves to win; it’s a team effort.
The player may win some personal accolades if they stand out among their peers, but their efforts alone likely won’t cause the team to win a match or a game.
Work involves a similar line of thinking. While an employee may be an eagle-eyed accountant, spotting every error on the company’s books, the company won’t truly benefit unless the accountant can cooperate with other team members.
Sooner or later, the accountant will grow tired of correcting every error. Unless they can explain the mistakes to the people making them, there won’t be any shift in the company’s accounting practices. Effective teamwork saves everyone time and frustration.
Another skill that sports participants typically learn is how to solve problems. Every competition, match, or game poses one specific problem: beating another team or player. However, doing so is usually an art. Every game is different, and every player will have their own qualities that set them apart from prior competitors.
That’s why in competitive sports, many players spend time watching their competition’s earlier performances. They want to know how different people react to specific game scenarios. Knowing their opponents’ techniques helps prepare the team (or the individual player) for the upcoming match.
Similarly, problem-solving is critical in business scenarios. Most companies face multiple competitors every day. Aside from external competition, there can be internal problems, like issues with worker productivity, problems locating highly qualified talent, and coordination between departments.
Women who learn the art of problem-solving through sports participation are well-prepared to tackle the organizational issues a company faces. They can take an objective look at the problem and devise potential ways to overcome it. They make decisions with less uncertainty, and they’ll usually keep a cool head — even when the issue is significant.
Another area where female sports participants excel is goal setting. In sports, there’s always a new goal. Whether you’re working toward a six-minute mile or you want to finesse your jump shot, setting objectives is a regular part of the process.
Usually, most athletes work toward both short- and long-term goals. Perhaps they want to increase their deadlift by two pounds next week, but they aim for a forty-pound increase over the next six months. Once they set a goal, they work toward it gradually.
Similarly, successful leadership requires short- and long-term goal setting. Most executives face immediate objectives, but they’ll have more extensive goals they’re aiming toward over the next five years.
A woman who regularly sets goals in her sports endeavors is well-placed to follow the same process in an executive leadership role.
There’s no doubt that athletic involvement brings profound benefits aside from physical and mental stimulation. Women who play sports throughout their lives benefit greatly from the skills they gain. Those skills can be quite attractive to companies seeking to hire more women leaders.
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