How sports preps women for leadership and power

By Caitlin Kelly

I don’t normally look to the sober-sided Financial Times for career advice, especially on the value of sport(s) for women who aim high professionally. But here’s Gillian Tett:

English: Dilma Rousseff with her running mate ...
English: Dilma Rousseff with her running mate for the 2010 Brazilian presidential election, Michel Temer. Português do Brasil: Dilma Rousseff, candidata a Presidência da República, com o companheiro de chapa Michel Temer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In recent months Ernst & Young, the American consultancy, has been analysing sporting activity among senior female executives and leaders. And it has discovered that the higher the executive level, the more
likely it is that a woman played sport at high school or college. Most notably, some 19 out of 20 women who sit in the “C-suite” – holding the title “chief something” – were sporty as a teenager; indeed, seven out of 10 still play sport as a working adult, while six out of 10 played sport at university. One in eight C-suite executives played sport professionally. However, among the middle levels of working women, athletic skill was lower: just a third of mid-level women, for example, played sport at university..

A few examples:

IMF head Christine Lagarde (a former member of France’s synchronised swimming team), Condoleezza Rice (a keen figure skater in her youth) and Hillary Clinton (school baseball). Or Dilma Rousseff (the Brazilian president, who played volleyball to a high level), Indra Nooyi (the CEO of PepsiCo was a keen cricket player), Ellen Kullman (CEO at Dupont, who played basketball to a high level at college)…

Secretary Rice meets with newly appointed Afgh...
Secretary Rice meets with newly appointed Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Rangin Dadfar Spanta. State Department photo by Hamid Hamidi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Girls who play sport at school learn at a young age that it is acceptable to compete aggressively. They also discover that success does not depend on looking good and that it can be acceptable to take pleasure in winning. ..Being an athlete is one of the few socially accepted ways for teenage girls to compete, without peer criticism.

I’m such a huge fan of girls and women being athletic!

I’ve been sporty since childhood — when I had no choice in the matter, because we did sports after school every day at boarding school and all day long at summer camp.

Some of the sports I’ve played, and some I continue to play:

softball, hiking, cycling, downhill and cross-country skiing, kayaking, canoeing, ice skating, fencing, golf, tennis, squash, badminton, volleyball, basketball, swimming (competitive), diving, snorkel, horseback riding, sailing, solo and in a racing team (12 f00t to 60 foot boats).

I also studied ballet from the age of 12 to my late 20s, jazz dance in my 20s, and I still do a jazz dance class every Monday morning.

I include yoga and any form of dance in the same  category of “sports” — requiring discipline, flexibility, training, practice, strength and determination to master them.

For all the endless paranoia/obsession about the size and shape of our bodies, what we really need is to be strong and limber, at 5, 15, 45 or 65.

If it weren’t for my athletic activities, I wouldn’t be able to control my weight, manage my stress, tap into my creativity or relate nearly as easily to the many men and women I meet who are sporty. I can always find someone to go for a hike with or play golf with my husband or take a jazz, modern or ballet class. For many years, I crewed every summer on more than a dozen racing sailboats on Long Island Sound, often trimming jib, a job requiring lightning reflexes and strong arms, shoulders and hands.

I moved to New York when I was 30, knowing no one, with no formal American education, no friends, relatives or a job. To stay busy while re-making my life, I took up saber fencing, coached by a two-time Olympian, and was nationally ranked for four years.

I learned a tremendous amount in  the salle and on that narrow strip, all of which has helped me in life, work and relationships:

How to control my temper (at least during a bout!)

How to stay focused for 20 minutes, crouched in en garde, on a minute object to the exclusion of all distractions

How to compete with confidence against opponents far bigger, stronger, taller and more experienced

How to lose (and not freak out)

How to win (and not gloat)

How to buy a bit of time, even at nationals in the direct elimination round (tie your shoe)

How to control an opponent

How to stay focused and compete effectively even when injured and in pain

How to accept criticism and feedback from my coach

How to initiate an attack quickly and decisively

There is no doubt that my strength, stamina and flexibility still help me stay fit and strong in a crazy business in a difficult economy.

On the crummiest day I know I can still shoot hoops or swing a driver with the young ‘uns. I can hit to the outfield and pop a golf ball 150 yards.

Do you play sports? Do your daughters?

How do you think it has affected them or changed their lives?

15 thoughts on “How sports preps women for leadership and power

  1. Nemesis

    Egads, Ms. Malled!

    You golf? I thought the links were strictly for OldPeople…

    Never mind… at least you’re in GoodCompany:

    Personally, I prefer motor sports… BiggerBalls, so to to speak.

    1. Not sure I would use “golf” as a verb yet, but I have started to play. I’d like to see my husband once in a while!

      Motor sports are very cool. I don’t have the nerve.

  2. I was never good in team-sports, but did will a lot of single disciplines. Team -sports at school ( in Germanny) is not including pupils, who have handicaps ( high weight or problems with coordination) . Vice versa. This was what I hated, not allowed to be fair to every classsmate. I loved horseback riding.
    After school I did dancing. Later Karate at a high level. For years I trained groups of girls and women. This was my passion for a long time.
    My daughter loves horseback riding and dancing, even she hates sports at school.
    My mother danced when she was young and after all kids left her home she icked it up an continued until she was 80. One sister practice jogging and horse riding, an other dancing, even they are seriously ill/ handicapt in the meantime.
    My niece is in fever of dancing, too. In her graduate film for her study of Art in Maastrich, netherlands, she shows a life of dance, especially of my mother ( 84) and a young Forró- dancer (english subtitles):
    “What if there was a language, everybody, regardless of origin, age or gender could understand?
    My very personal answer to that question is – dance.
    The two protagonists seem to be completely opposed characters at first, but through their dancing it becomes apparent that they have much more in common than one would have thought.
    This documentary was my graduation film for ABK Maastricht.”

    Anyway, we are not famous, but all women of our family do a good job and found an acceptable and satisfactory place in ihe world.
    Sports always supportet us.

    1. What a great story!

      I think it’s really interesting that sports is multi-generational for the women in your family. My mother was not sporty but my father and I spent a lot of time doing sports when I lived with him in my teens — he just invited me to go sailing off of B.C. (he’s now 84.)

      I think it’s terrific your niece is also so passionate. Dance truly is a language…I’m SORE today from yesterday’s jazz class, but very happily so.

  3. When I was a kid I was a pretty good skater (in Canada you learn to skate as soon as you are weaned) and I was a fast sprinter but the knees need to coddled a bit now. I find biking to be the best exercise for me – I just cruise along, enjoying the air and wildlife, not thinking too much, a little zoned out except for when I am in traffic (golf cart territory is risky). There is still that little bit of competitive spirit there, though. I don’t mind at all passing a slower cyclist.

    1. I love seeing tiny Canadian kids learning to skate — often by pushing a chair in front of them.

      I wish I enjoyed cycling more than I do. I have a great bike but I don’t enjoy it that much…?

  4. I was never sporty at school; in fact, I would sometimes hide just to get out of it. I’m not sure if it was to do with my classmates or that on a hockey pitch you can’t pretend to be someone else – your flaws are completely exposed.

    But it was through the arts (school plays & dance competitions) that I found my competitive & authoritive edge. Something about the arts made me a perfectionist and I loved the control of choreographing or directing a piece.

    To this day I like the idea of getting involved in sports, but running appeals to me more now: self-competition, exploring, pushing myself further without the scrutiny of others, completing personal goals rather than showing them off.

    To me, it’s more about finding something you love and are passionate that your leadership skills will naturally come out.

    1. This is really interesting — thanks! One of my fantasy careers was to choreograph, although I know I would never have done it nor probably succeeded at it. It’s a great skill, so congrats!

      I agree that sports can give us a wide range of choices. The ones I like best are outdoors and social, hiking, softball, golf, etc. I spend so much of my time working alone that solitary athletics are too lonely for me right now.

  5. I knew a rather famous restaurant chain owner in college. He used to do talks on Service. He said in interviews he always asked “What sports do you play?” He wanted kids who had done team sports because they would be working for the group, not for themselves. He never hired the non-sporty, and rarely hired the individual sport kids. It would be interesting to know how this team sport vs individual sport participant works out in the corporate world.

    I myself had a 4 season coach for a father. While I wasn’t the best athlete, I loved playing soccer. I was the on the same team with the same kids for almost 10 years. Then after seeing Oxford Blues in High School, I had to row. But in college rowing workouts were at 5:00 in the morning. Um…not that committed. I golf when I am home in the states, its too expensive in Germany. I never ran track as a kid, but now I’m a committed runner. 2 years and a few races under my belt. I’m slow, but I enjoy the release that running gives in the midst of my crazy life.

    1. I wonder how overplayed (pun intended) the whole team sports thing is…or maybe not. Most of my sports have been individual and I am very entrepreneurial in that respect. But I also have played for many years with a co-ed pick-up softball team, so I get that as well.

      Rowing is insane. I’m in awe of rowers.

  6. I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ll be starting college this fall. I’m big on sports, running competitively. Running over the years has taught me how to compete against myself, to always push on because there’s more in you than you think. Sports really does make you acutely aware of yourself, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually. And when we are so overwhelmed with information 24/7, I’ve found this self-awareness invaluable.

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