It is no coincidence that female success in business has followed the rise in women’s competitive sports programs.
November 14, 2019
Here’s the truth — female workers will be more successful than their predecessors if they participate in competitive sports.
I could build my case with the clichés of sports teaching toughness, determination, discipline and the best character builder a young person can have as well as the lessons discussed below to prepare for most of the trials of business life. But those are not as persuasive as demonstrating that many of the most successful Chief Executive Officers (CEO) at the world’s largest companies played sports at very high levels.
The examples are endless — Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman played four sports during high school and named a captain for the swim team and played lacrosse and squash at Princeton. Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb stared at soccer in high school and at Stanford. Sunoco CEO Lynn Laverty Elsenhans played high school basketball and college basketball at Rice University; Bank of America’s CEO Brian Moynihan played football and rugby at Brown. Melendez International’s CEO Irene Rosenfeld played basketball, while General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson boxed at the Naval Academy. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in college in India.
It is no coincidence that female success in business has followed the rise in women’s competitive sports programs. In 1972, only 15.5% of college athletes were female. In 2017-2018, the number of females by State playing competitive high school sport averaged 42 percent. The evidence stacks up on the business side, too — a 2015 study of 400 female C-suite executives conducted by ESPNW and EY found that more than half played sport at the university level compared with only 39% of women at other management levels.
As an owner of a law firm with fifty-plus employees in which half are female, all hiring decisions are based on benefiting our clients and producing the best results. We survive in business based on the quality and production of our human labor. When we hire, we hire those who have a competitive edge, an obsession with success, and a willingness to push themselves to their limits to finish the task at hand. Usually, society doesn’t compel women to be aggressive, intense, or competitive — but in sports, players of all genders are required to hone those skills. We only hire the best, and the best is usually an athlete.
Sports programs serve as a training ground for many of the traits that executives will experience later on in life. If we can encourage today’s children — and girls in particular — to play sports early, we can increase their drive to become the female corporate leaders of tomorrow.
Participating in Youth Sports Builds Intrinsic Motivation
In business, there are winners and losers. In sports, winning is paramount. As Vince Lombardi famously stated, there is only one place, first place. Only the best businesses remain in business.
There is no better teacher of the necessity of personal motivation than sports. I started competing in schoolyards and camps since I was five years old, and I joined the track team at 13. During one of my first eighth-grade track practices, I took a fake fall as I was so exhausted from running. A few seconds later, while I was lying on the ground, my assistant track coach bent down to scream in my ear that we do not ever make excuses and we always finish practice. That was the last time I did not complete a race—injury or no injury–in my high school career.
As a lawyer and founding partner, I have to compete in the courtroom, when negotiating deals, when trying to have clients hire my firm, and competition in dozens of time each day because my clients are looking for the very best real estate lawyer or litigator. I did not learn my yearning to win and zest for success in the courtroom or office or board room or college or law school. I learned it in sports competing against my peers, always giving one-hundred percent to win.
Athletes Learn How to Strive for Greatness and Survive a Failure
Failure stings. If you never get used to it and in high school and beyond, a social stigma enters the arena and prevents you from trying. For non-athletes, this could mean choosing not to apply for a reach college, or not pursuing a dream job. That fear of failure has real long-term consequences.
It’s a lesson that my niece learned recently. She has been playing competitive soccer since she was five years old, and ever since I can remember, her dream was to make the high school varsity team. By the age of 10, she played in two leagues including a travel team coached by experienced professional coaches.
In her sophomore year, she went out for the varsity team — and did not make it.
But she didn’t give up — in fact, she dug in and worked harder. She played on the junior varsity team as well as her travel team. She decided to change travel teams, so she could be challenged more. She attended clinics and took every chance she could to play and be coached to improve her skills. But she knew that if she did not make the varsity team in her junior year, she would be cut from the team and never achieve her dream of making the varsity team.
My niece and I are very close. I had been to many of her games since her first game to some of the most important ones. When I received the call that she was cut from the team and the ugly politics behind the decision, I cried with her. Later, I told her that there is more to life than soccer, and she will have time to see what goes on in the rest of the world.
It was a hard lesson — but one that made her stronger, more determined, and willing to push herself to succeed. Everyone in business fails—and I know that this loss will empower my niece to be more focused, retrospective, and able to grow.
Children of All Genders Need Sports to Thrive in Business
I understand that not all young people have been made for physical sports or, more frequently, they have not found a pursuit they have a passion for. But there is competition for everyone whether it be ballet or chess or ice skating or dance. The key is to make competition, winning, and losing a daily part of your life. The trials and tribulations to prevail and reach the goals provide incredible training for future executives.
We will be a stronger and more productive country if more females play high school sports. Hiring practices need to become more merit-based, as well — the talent in our country need to be hired and promoted based on their skill and competence rather than whether they are male and female.
If you encourage your child to take part in team sports, you will be setting them up for professional success — and that’s a fact.