"In my experience as a senior executive in the competitive and fast-paced sporting goods industry, I have seen my share of good leaders.

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Learning to Lead From the Field: How Sports Can Improve Your Life and Career

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“You get the best effort from others not by lighting a fire beneath them, but by building a fire within.”  -Bob Nelson

Why is it that so many effective people, from American presidents to top CEOs, credit sports for their success? Few people understand the career-building skills they learn on the field; but playing team sports at any age has an immensely positive impact on our soft skills. Participating in sports affords the opportunities to learn and practice leadership in a way that transfers easily to other areas of life, such as one’s career.

Being Coached

One of the oft forgotten perks of playing on a sports team is the opportunity to meet and work with outstanding coaches. The right coach can have a deep influence on a person’s life, inspiring them with confidence, providing constructive criticism and offering guidance. An excellent coach will embody the attributes of a great leader and will lead by example by being helpful, knowledgeable and sincere; he or she will teach the tenets of leadership in their actions. Playing team sports allows the opportunity to emulate and learn from a superior coach who provides lessons that can last a lifetime.

Applying Teamwork

Team sports also teach tangible lessons in teamwork, which are extremely applicable at the office. Whether you come together to create a positive and productive team culture on the field or in the boardroom, the core principles remain the same. For example, each member of a successful sports team learns to communicate well with coaches and fellow teammates: clear communication can mean the difference between a win and a loss. Just like a sports team, an entire company can benefit from employees who encourage open and honest dialogue.  

Teammates learn to strive for cohesiveness by working towards the shared goals of the group rather than an individual’s goals, because sports lend perspective on the bigger picture; just as each athlete knows which position they play, and how their unique contribution is valuable, each employee and manager needs to clearly understand how their role works in tandem with the group. This perspective underscores a shift in priorities and values: when a person learns to feel a sense of accomplishment for achieving team successes, rather than individual wins, everyone accomplishes more. Employees who understand sports know better than anyone else the real truth to the phrase, “There’s no ‘I’ in team” and personify this philosophy in their work.

Learning Leadership

Team sports can teach each of us how to be positive, successful leaders both on the court and at the office. Athletes learn the importance of hard work, practice, dedication, sincerity, humility, motivation, encouragement and graciousness; and so they bring these forward and become natural leaders in other aspects of life. 

Playing sports means learning to accept loses gracefully, to improve upon mistakes and be accountable to a group – but it also means keeping one another motivated, recognizing effort and improvement, maintaining enthusiasm and giving credit for successes. When a person has mastered this as an athlete, it simply becomes a part of who they are and they can easily take on leadership roles at work because of their ingrained knowledge and practice. 

You wouldn’t think that football has anything to do with business or that baseball could help you get ahead in your job. But the skills we learn from playing sports and participating on teams are the exact attributes of successful leaders in our organizations. Athletes have the unique opportunity to learn from coaches, to live and breathe the “team spirit” and to practice their own leadership skills until these attributes become a part of who they are – and they bring this positive knowledge with them in all other endeavours. 

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Julie Nimmons

Julie Nimmons

Julie uses her 30 years’ experience to help CEOs, executives and business owners in her Vistage Group find success in their businesses and personal lives. With positive leadership, a firm sense of prioritization and the commitment to lifelong learning, Julie’s creates a constructive workspace for Group members where honesty, innovation and cooperation can flourish.