Does sport give women a winning edge in business?

Women who participate in team sports are more likely to excel in business.

For women in the workforce, a sports background can build the skills you need to lead and to achieve.

If you were an entrepreneur appealing to a potential investor, do you think your athletic background could give you a competitive edge? Alexandra Mills, CEO of product sites for the AussieCommerce Group, thinks so. She says all else being equal, she’d invest in the woman who’d engaged in elite sports.

“It’s an indicator of having the discipline and innate drive to follow your dreams,” says Mills, a former professional ballet dancer who trained with the renowned Stuttgart Ballet.

Is this unfair bias or a well-founded leaning?

Research into 400 women executives across Europe, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific confirms the link between female participation in sport and greater achievement in higher education and employment. 

Ninety-four per cent of the women executives had a background in sport and more than half of women in the C-suite played sport at college level, according to the report, Making the Connection: women, sport and leadership, released by the EY [Ernst & Young] Women Athletes Business Network last year. Sixty-one percent of the women said that sport had contributed to their current career success.

While most female sportswomen earn little to nothing during their sports careers, what they learn and transfer to other arenas, especially business, can be priceless.

EY’s Beth Brooke, rated three times in a row in the top 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes, attributes much of her career success to her early sports training. Learning about failure has been key.

Professional Development: Building effective leadership and management capacity value pack: this comprehensive selection covers many of those skill areas such as, crafting and executing business strategy, managing a diverse team, business law and the managers responsibilities, and effective leadership communication strategies.

"Losing is just feedback. You get up the next morning, analyse what you did wrong and learn how to do it better," said Brookes at the Forbes Women Summit in 2013.

Based in Washington, D.C. and New York, Brooke is the global vice-chairman of public policy for EY, and was the first woman to be awarded a basketball scholarship from Indiana’s Purdue University.

Holly Ransom, who at 22 was the youngest person named in Australia's 2012 "100 Most Influential Women" by the Australian Financial Review and Westpac, says her early sports training gave her a rhythm and routine that's geared towards optimising performance.

“Losing is just feedback. You get up the next morning, analyse what you did wrong and learn how to do it better.” 

Goal setting, training, focus, giving yourself milestones and always seeking continuous improvement, even when you win, have definitely transferred into my professional career,” says Ransom, CEO of Melbourne-based leadership development company HRE Global.

“I know I couldn’t function if it weren’t for the ongoing presence of sport and fitness in my life – that’s my sanity and recharge,” says Ransom, who is currently training for her first Iron Woman contest and has a goal of running a marathon in every continent – one down, five to go.

Your confidence is key

Mills from AussieCommerce Group relies heavily on the confidence she gained through her seven years of international performing as a professional ballerina.

“I am not a naturally extroverted or confident person, but after going onstage so many times, I have learnt how to control my nerves, step out and perform to the best of my ability. I now draw on that when I do presentations to the board, or to my staff,” she says. 


It’s easy to see how confidence, determination, a competitive spirit and an ability to come back from setbacks serve women well in business. But not all athletic principles transfer well to the real world of work.

“The biggest shock on entering the corporate world was being surrounded by people who weren’t all motivated to do their best,” says Ransom.

“I enjoy operating at a high intensity but not everyone wants to go this hard.”

Vanessa Bennett, CEO of Inside80 in Australia, mentors senior executives in achieving peak performance using athletic strategies.

“Athletes are used to operating in a controlled environment where they can give 100 per cent focus to their game,” says Bennett. “This isn’t realistic in business, so we talk about progress, not perfection. Perfectionism can burn people out.”


7 women athletes who are seriously winning at business

When talent and tenacity result in a winning streak for women in high-profile sports, millions can flow from the simple business formula of prize money and endorsement deals. The 2014 Forbes list of the highest paid female athletes reveals just how lucrative this can be. 

Earning top dollar

Maria Sharapova, the highest paid female athlete in the world, pulled in an estimated US$24.4 million in 2014, with US$2.4 million coming from prize money and US$22 million from endorsements. Her Nike deal is the richest in women’s tennis. Sales for her Maria Sharapova Collection, which includes shoes and accessories for Nike subsidiary Cole Haan, doubled in 2011.

Li Na, earned about US$23.6 million (US$5.6 million from prize money and US$18 million from endorsements). After China’s Li became the first Asian-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam final in 2011, she secured seven three-year, multimillion dollar endorsement deals with Mercedes-Benz, Samsung Electronics and several Chinese firms. After her Australian Open win in January 2014, Nike topped her up with a sizeable bonus.

Former athletes found their own companies

Lisa Falzone, former Stanford University swimmer, is the co-founder and CEO of Revel Systems, an award-winning iPad point-of-sale solution for single location and multi-location businesses. Falzone says she uses the laser-sharp focus, hard work and unwavering discipline she developed through swimming to run her multimillion dollar company. Her team has raised US$100 million series C funding since Falzone co-founded the company in 2010.

Stephanie Rice, Australian Olympic swimmer who won three Olympic Gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is currently applying the skills and dedication of her sporting career to new ventures such as the launch of a children’s swimwear range, public speaking and kids’ mentoring.

Fabiola Pulga Molina is a three-time Olympic swimmer from Brazil, and the CEO and founder of the Fabiola Molina swimwear and beachwear company. Last year the company celebrated its 10-year anniversary. 

Using higher education to forge new careers

After competing in sailing for Singapore in the 2008 Olympic Games, Toh Liying studied medicine in Australia and now works as a doctor for SingHealth Pediatrics in Singapore.

Emily Hughes is a 2006 silver and bronze Olympic medalist in figure skating for the US. She went on to graduate from Harvard University and now works as a business analyst for Google. 

Did you know?

Annual wages of former athletes are about 7 per cent higher than for non-athletes. The difference is even greater for women. “Women, Sports, and Development: Does It Pay to Let Girls Play?” 

 What women say are the top three leadership skills developed by sport:

  1. Ability to see projects through to completion
  2. Motivational skills
  3. Team building
How candidates with a sports background are perceived:
  1. Strong work ethic
  2. Team players
  3. Determined

 Source: Making the Connection: women sport and leadership, EY.

 Female leaders with a background in sports:

  • Michelle Bachelet, first female president of Chile
  • Ana Guevara, Mexican senator
  • Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo 
  • Ellen Kullman, CEO of DuPont
  • Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell Technology Group

 Can sport develop superior executive functioning?

A 2014 study of 54 university students found that athletes outperformed non-athletes on a range of tests of executive function of the brain, related to decision-making, problem solving and inhibition (the suppression of your dominant response in order to prevent an error).

As well, different types of athletic experience had unique benefits.

Self-paced (SP) sports, such as golf or running, that allow time for athletes to prepare themselves for critical actions and perform at a pace they control, were compared to externally paced (EP) sports such as soccer and basketball, that require adaptability and quick decision-making in response to external cues.

Self-paced athletes outscored EP athletes on inhibition tasks.

Externally paced athletes outscored SP athletes in problem solving tasks.  

Source: Psychology of Sport and Exercise 15 (2014) 521-527.

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