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Why athletes shine in the corporate world

The other week, I interviewed – and hired – an ex-athlete, and it got me thinking about why former sportspeople make such great hires for dynamic businesses.

Alright, let’s dive straight into a truth that’s as clear and sharp as a well-maintained ice skate: athletes often turn out to be rockstars in the corporate world. Wondering how the discipline of sports translates into smashing success in business? It’s not just about competition; it’s about a whole set of ingrained habits and mindsets that athletes develop, which happen to be gold dust in business.

Here’s the kicker: An investigation by British Universities & Colleges Sport unveils that alumni who engaged in sports at the university level command an average salary premium of 18% over their peers who did not. According to a global study by EY and espnW, 94% of women in C-suite positions played sports. If that’s not compelling enough, consider that over half of them (52%) played at university level. 

We’re talking about a breed of people who are not only used to hard knocks and getting back up but are also master strategists, team players, and goal-setters. Let’s unpack why athletes often end up on the winners’ podium in their business careers too.

1. Goal Setting – It’s Their Bread and Butter

Athletes eat goals for breakfast. From a young age, they’re taught how to set clear, tangible goals and the steps needed to achieve them. This isn’t just about aiming to win a race; it’s about the incremental improvements needed to shave off a millisecond here or add a kilogram there. In the corporate jungle, this translates into setting performance targets, smashing sales goals, and strategic planning. They don’t just aim for good; they aim for gold-standard results.

2. Discipline and Resilience – They’ve Got it in Spades

Let’s face it, getting up at 5 AM to dive into a cold swimming pool or hit the track takes a special kind of stubborn. Athletes do it daily, rain or shine. This discipline overflows into their work ethic, making them relentless in their pursuit of corporate success. Resilience built in training and competition – handling losses, injuries, and failures without throwing in the towel – equips them to navigate business downturns. Where others see disaster, they see a challenge to overcome. They are driven by the fulfilment that comes from reaching the finish line, whether it’s the end of a race or the successful culmination of a business project. Athletes don’t just work hard; they keep going when others might give up.

3. Team Dynamics – No ‘I’ in Team

Athletes understand that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. They’ve lived through the highs of team victories and the lows of losses, learning that collaboration and communication are pivotal. In the corporate world, this experience translates into leading teams with empathy and insight, fostering a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. 

Many successful athletes have their strongest Working Genius in galvanising others. They get that to win big, you need to pull together and know how to rally a team and inspire them towards a common goal. This ability translates well into leadership roles within a business setting, where they can motivate their teams to push forward, overcome obstacles, and achieve collective objectives enthusiastically.

4. Performance Under Pressure – Cool as Ice

Ever watched a penalty shoot-out? That nail-biting moment is what athletes live for. Handling pressure is part of their training. When it comes to the high-stakes environment of business negotiations, tight deadlines, and critical presentations, athletes often remain unflappable. High-level athletes develop a keen sense of discernment through sports, learning to make split-second decisions and understanding the nuances of their sport. This transfers to business as evaluating situations, making informed decisions, and providing insightful advice that guides strategic directions. Their ability to focus and deliver when the heat is on makes them invaluable in any business setting.

5. Continuous Improvement – Always Leveling Up

In sports, the goalposts are always moving. What was fast yesterday won’t win tomorrow’s races – in the words of my new hire “perfection is a benchmark”. Athletes are in a constant state of self-evaluation and improvement, seeking even the slightest edge to boost performance. This culture of continual personal and professional development can ignite innovation and drive in business, keeping their teams competitive and cutting-edge. 


So, there you have it. Athletes bring to the table a cocktail of qualities that every business craves: resilience, discipline, teamwork, pressure management, and relentless improvement. They’re not just playing games; they’re mastering the art of winning, whatever the arena. In the corporate world, that’s not just valuable; it’s often the difference between the good and the truly great.

Now, next time you’re looking to hire, and you see a candidate with a sports background, you might just want to think twice about passing them over. They could be the very people who’ll help your business not just play the game, but change it entirely.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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