In Sports and Life, Athletes Know How to Win!

You’ve seen this image before. The jock in the back of the classroom; a specimen of physical perfection, but not very smart, disinterested in academics and has difficulties carrying on conversations about anything other than sports, dating, social life and pop culture. Typical characteristics include being conceited, self-centered, over-privileged, aggressive, and short-tempered. The historical origin dates back hundreds of years to when Greek and Roman athletes were criticized for spending an inordinate amount of time preparing for competition, while neglecting intellectual development. Philosophers at the time even characterized these individuals as useless and ignorant, with dull minds. However, in today’s world this couldn’t be further from the truth.    

The “dumb jock” stereotype is just that, a stereotype. It carries no scientific basis. The suggestion that athletic success and academic success are mutually exclusive is a fallacy. Indeed, research shows that the vast majority of student-athletes outperform the general student population. For instance, Dr. Roger Whitley of East Carolina University, conducted a study called, “A Comparison of the Educational Performances of Athletes and Nonathletes” that validates this assertion. Specifically, research found that athletes outperformed non-athletes in measurement of GPA, attendance, discipline, dropouts and graduation rates. "The most surprising aspect of the study was not that athletes as a whole do better, because there was a lot in the literature to suggest that was true, but it was how much better athletes did. The difference was just unreal and the trends are consistent. The analyses of the data for the three-year period show a marked consistency in the performances of both athletes and non-athletes and those 'dumb jocks' were and still are doing better than the non-athletes,” said Dr. Whitley.

Beyond the scope of structured academic sports, leisure athletes who participate in activities such as marathons and triathlons, likewise acquire benefits that positively impact their careers and make them better employees. CV-Library, which is a UK job site, conducted a study to see how training for the London Marathon can influence a runner’s work life. The study found that 87.7% of runners believed that the routine of training for a marathon improved their overall productivity at work. Lee Biggins, founder and managing director of CV-Library said, “Any individual who commits to running a marathon is clearly motivated by personal success, and this level of dedication is likely to influence their working life; a fact that should be positively channeled by employers. As staff spend months honing in on a goal, dedicated to meeting their targets and consistently improving, this change is often seen in the working environment too, as they become better, more productive employees.”

The idea that soft skills, such as leadership, teamwork, decision making, and resilience have more to do with success in life than hard skills such as talent, knowledge, experience and intelligence is a controversial, yet viable notion. Most people agree that you can train someone to perform a job, but it’s difficult to teach work ethic, attitude, motivation, leadership, empathy and social skills, among other traits that are vital for a successful career, positive work culture and sustainable, long-term business growth. The qualities that athletes bring to the job not only boost individual productivity, but simultaneously increase harmony and collaboration with fellow colleagues, given diverse environments and the need to interact with many different types of personalities at work.

Indeed, several studies conducted over the last several years substantiate the assertion that athletes make great employees:

  • 94% of women in the C-suite played sports, with 52% at the university level, according to a study by Ernst and Young and espnW. In the same study, 74% of respondents said a sport background can help accelerate a woman’s career, and 61% believe sporting involvement has contributed to their own career success.
  • A Cornell University study found that people who played high school sports got better jobs with better pay, and that those benefits lasted a lifetime.
  • A study called “Does Involvement in Sports lead to a Productive Employee?” found that employees who participated in sports had higher performance evaluation scores. They recommended a mandate that staff must be involved in at least one exercise program.
  • A research study by The Atlantic, found that former student athletes earn between 5% and 15% than their non-sports playing peers.
  • A study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine showed that two and a half hours of exercise per week led to increased quantity of work and work-ability and decreased absence.
  • Two recent studies published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studiesfound that the 43 percent of high school students in the United States who have played sports tended to have more leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect.
  • Former student athletes are more likely to be engaged at work, involved in their community, and driven to meet goals, according to a study by the NCAA in association with Gallup.
  • Using data on CEOs of S&P 1500 companies from 2001 to 2011, the Social Science Research Network, determined which CEOs in each year had run a marathon and matched these findings with each company's market value compared to its book value from that same time period. They found that companies with CEOs who were marathon runners were 5% more valuable than companies led by CEOs who didn’t.

Of course there are caveats to making generalizations about athletes. To be clear, hiring an athlete will not always guarantee a good hire and many of the qualities described above are also found in musicians, writers, artists, or anyone who displays passion, pride and enthusiasm towards mastering a skill. However, it certainly stands to reason that discussing sports can offer new revelations about job candidates that may otherwise be unknown. Including the “whole person concept” during the hiring process may open a window that sheds light on a candidate’s latent soft skills that gives hiring managers a better understanding of their character, while serving as a key differentiator that may help facilitate hiring decisions.  


  • Derek

    That’s great Cara! I’m sure it gives you more energy at work, too.

  • Cara Singleton

    Great article! My athletic competitions have enhanced my work ethics.

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