Women in Sports Prove to Be Better Leaders

On National Girls and Women in Sports Day and as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Title IX, we must work to create more opportunities for young women to flourish as athletes and executives. 

Growing up as the only girl on my hockey teams came with its fair share of adversity. 

“I’m not sure what you will learn about hockey,” my dad always said, “but you will definitely learn a lot about life.” 

As it turns out, I did learn a great deal about hockey and went on to play at Yale and, later, professionally in Europe.

I also learned a lot about life, and it is those lessons, realized on the ice and in the locker room, that have been instrumental in preparing me as a female executive in the male-dominated sports industry. 

It’s no secret that sports uniquely prepare women for life in the boardroom. A 2018 study conducted by Ernst & Young found that 94% of women who hold C-suite positions are former athletes. Success in the business world demands a level of intensity and competition that is uniquely learned through sports. On the ice, after every bone-crushing check, I would get right up and keep playing. Setbacks—physical and emotional—happen regularly in sports, just as they do in business.

We experience challenges every day in the business world, and the best leaders remain poised and confident, and find ways around obstacles. They do not give up when problems arise—and never quit. The best executives I have worked with, many of them former competitive athletes, are results-oriented and possess a strong command of their business’ key performance indicators. They do not like to lose and will leverage a wide range of skills to find ways to positively influence outcomes. 

As athletes, we are mentally programmed to excel under pressure and when faced with adversity. We learn to play nicely with others, and do not dwell on losses or crack when faced with constructive criticism.

Photo by Meghan Holmes on Unsplash

Research has shown that executives who follow a regular fitness regimen are better leaders. Mental and physical performance is second nature to female athletes who have spent their lives training to achieve optimal performance. Female athletes are experienced in managing stress levels and value mental conditioning just as much as physical conditioning. They know that a sound body and mind are key ingredients to success and take the proper steps to manage stress and prioritize their mental and physical health. These attributes are only a glimpse into the power women bring to the business world as a result of their athletic experiences. 

Sports are the true executive bootcamp for future female leaders.

Whether playing at the highest level of competition or participating in recreational sports, female athletes can push themselves outside their comfort zone. They possess intrinsic motivation to be their best, which translates directly to life off the field, court, or ice. The positive influence of sports can be seen at every level of the corporate ladder. Research has found that female former student-athletes are more engaged at work than their male counterparts. Girls who play sports have increased confidence, body image, academic performance, and personal relationships. Female collegiate athletes are more likely to graduate from college, find a job, and be employed in male-dominated industries. A background in sports can help accelerate a woman’s career, make her a more desirable job candidate, and potentially earn her a higher salary

At Next College Student Athlete (NCSA), I am privileged to work alongside hundreds of women who are former collegiate and professional athletes. As we help the next generation of girls on their path to college athletics, we see the positive impact of sports on young women, every day. At NCSA, we often tell our athletes that choosing a college is not a four-year decision, it’s a 40+-year decision that will impact their entire future. Despite the evidence that sport helps create female leaders, more and more girls are dropping out of sports each year. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, by the age of 14 girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. While several factors can influence girls’ participation in sports, from affordability to accessibility, the positive influence of a coach or role model has proven to be invaluable in keeping girls in the sports. As female leaders and former athletes, it is up to us to empower girls to get in, and stay in, the game. 

Speaking at the NCSA Turkey Bowl. Photo by Lisa Strasman.

I coach my 6-year-old daughter’s hockey team and regularly see examples of girls learning life lessons during games and practices. Whether it is being called off the ice because she didn’t pass, being pushed to work harder, or celebrating a big win with teammates, I know the girls will carry these memories with them, far beyond the rink.

As an athlete, coach, and executive leader, I have repeatedly seen the gifts women gain through their athletic careers directly translate to business leadership. When we look at the long game, it’s clear that empowering more girls to play sports will go a long way in developing the female leaders of tomorrow.

Lisa Strasman is President and COO of Next College Student Athlete, the largest college athletic recruiting network in the world.