Score! Playing Sports Prepares Women For Successful Careers

“I like to imagine a mass of ponytailed girls converging on to fields and into gymnasiums, temporarily sidelining a bunch of gawky young boys flummoxed by the sudden estrogen invasion.” That passage was written by Mina Samuels in her book, Run Like A Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives. The book focuses on ordinary women achieving enlightenment through sports. Samuels imagined this scenario of crowds of athletic girls after citing that between the years of 1970-1971 and 1977-1978, girls participation in sports increased 600%. “That’s a lot of girls lacing up their cleats and skates, and putting on their first sports bra,” she wrote.

Through interviews with a few women who played sports as children and adolescents and even into their young adulthood as well as coaches, we found that those years on the field or the rink or the court getting dirty, sweaty and bloody helped them approach their careers with more confidence, strategy and tenacity.

According to research from Wharton business and public policy professor Betsey Stevenson, there are large wage gains for those who play high school sports. She found 14% and 19% higher wages, respectively, among working women and men who were high school athletes. She found that a ten-percentage point increase in girls’ sports participation generates an increase of 1.9 percentage points in the probability of being employed. “In 1980, 62% of 25 to 34 year-old women were employed and 47% were employed full time,” she writes. “These numbers rose 10 percentage points over the ensuing two decades and were 72% and 57% respectively in 2000. Since Title IX is associated with a roughly 30% rise in sports participation, my estimates suggest that a roughly four percentage point rise in female labor force participation is attributable to the increased opportunities to participate in sports.”

Kim Rosenberg, founder of a DC-based matchmaking service for Gays and Lesbians called Mixology, played soccer starting as a young girl and then went on to play at the collegiate level for UNC Greensboro and for a few years on a semi-pro team. She attributes the team atmosphere and the constant building of both her physical and emotional stamina to have been a great foundation for launching her own business.

“When I finished playing [a soccer game], knowing that I could endure the hardest things and every emotion you could possibly feel, I knew I could handle anything when it came to starting my own business. Pushing yourself through things in sports creates a brand of resiliency that is needed for starting your own company.”

According to Stevenson, sports participation can also make an impact on career choice. Sports can lead to more women pursuing traditionally “male” occupations. She defines male occupations as jobs in which at least two-thirds of the workers are under the age of 50 in 1970 were male. She found that Title IX is associated with 15% of the rise in female employment in “male” occupations.

A  young woman in trading said playing ice hockey from the age of 8 years old through college definitely helped her approach her male dominated career with confidence.

There was never a question of I can’t do it. I played ice hockey for a college team and I am 5 feet tall, so why couldn’t I do this other very challenging thing that was considered to be more of a man’s area? I had already done that as an athlete. My approach to business is very similar to what I was taught as an athlete. It was instilled in me from a young age that there is nothing I can’t do if I work hard enough at it and want it enough. I don’t think I would have been the same person without those years of playing.”

Coaches who have worked with both genders, at various ages, said the impact of sports comes into play later in life when women approach their careers. Working together as a team, establishing weaknesses and consequently figuring out how to address and fix them, as well as basic confidence, all stem from playing sports. That feeling of ‘I can do it!’ becomes an innate part of these girls’ psyches that lasts with them into adulthood.

Sam Zietz has coached both young girls and boys in sports and said the differences in how young girls approach sports is very different from boys. He said the skills and esteem they acquire over the years will absolutely make an impact on them later in life.

“Girls get a lot more out of it in then they did in the 1950s, when they could only be cheerleaders. Girls who play sports have much higher self esteem the girls who don’t. You can just see that they are a lot more confident. With the sports background, they approach things thinking everyone is a lot more equal. From what I have observed, girls who don’t play are more passive, more subservient. Those girls may tend to be more of the ‘I want to find a husband’ girls but the ones who play sports are saying ‘I want to run a company or be a doctor or be a lawyer.  This is giving them the foundation, subliminally, for later in life. Any sport teaches you just as much about any business as math or English.”

He explained that while coaching his 11-year-old daughter’s flag football team, compared to his son’s softball team, he could see that girls tend to focus on the bigger picture more. “With girls you have to be a little more philosophical and explain why this drill will help the end result. With boys you just tell them to do something.” With young girls, a bit more work has to go into getting the competitive edge out compared to boys. “It is not as ingrained in them, but this brings it out.”

The teammate aspect of working together and not just being out for yourself is also more innate in girls and is developed more in sports. This is something that can be very useful for business. “When kids are young you can see that everyone wants to run for the ball but eventually they do start to realize that everybody has a role. Your job is not always to go get a goal, but your job is to contain the ball. They learn that they have to rely on their teammates and that you can’t do anything 100% yourself,” said Zietz.

Kyle Gray, an elementary Physical Education teacher at Viewlands Elementary, the Varsity Fast Pitch Coach for Ballard High School’s womens team and the Men’s Basketball Coach for Seattle C.C. in Seattle, said he also believes playing sports as a young person can help women deal with problems in business later. He insists that if there is a conflict or a player is upset about something that they have to come to him directly instead of telling their parents to talk to him.  He believes this could help with the common problem of women being too afraid to ask for raises and negotiate or speak up when there is a problem. “You can’t send your parent to your boss. You learn how to hear the truth.”

Both coaches as well as Rosenberg, who now coaches as well, said male athletes, from childhood through college, do tend to never lose that superstar mentality of  ‘I am the star so I should get credit’, which can prove helpful in their careers. Women don’t have that as much and often they care more for how the team does than whether they get credit or not. Taking credit for your work is very important, but so is working with others in business towards a joint goal or deal. Playing sports helps to find that balance. The player should take the credit if they made the goal but they should attribute who gave them the pass to do it.

“These girls learn how to be confident and that if they earn something they should not sell themselves short,” said Gray. “I am confident that someday I will be working for all of these girls.”

Photo: Stephanie Swartz/Shutterstock







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    • Briana

      Nice! I definitely believe the statistics, and what these women are saying. I ran cross-country and swam in high school, and while those aren’t traditionally considered team sports, they still taught me a lot about how to set goals and push myself, which I think is huge for my career and other aspects of my life. And even though I’m not really competing (except for a few fun runs and long races here and there), I think staying active still helps me perform better at work.

    • Kadee

      Great article Meredith, I think the insights into what playing sports can do in adolescence and attributing them to career women is spot on. It’s interesting to see and reflect on the connections you’re making. I feel people outside of the “sports” arena in life – those that didn’t play – don’t see the value and how it can play into adulthood. Way to surface it.

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    • Craig

      Good article Meredith. I work with women and men in senior leadership positions for a living, and am a former (mediocre Division III) college basketball player. Participation in team sports offer the opportunity to learn many lessons, but not everyone learns them. In addition to the lessons you and others mention, in my opinion the most important is this: What happens on the court (or in the conference room) is not personal. The team mate who shoves you in practice to get to the ball is just trying to compete. In sports, like in business, you have to keep things in context. If you take it personally and carry it off the court, you aren’t learning the lesson.

      I feel lucky to work with colleagues (male and female) who work hard, kkep their focus on their goals, but always seem to offer to buy the beer after we bang heads at work.

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