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?