Playing high school sports could give you an advantage in the job market

Future CEOs?
Future CEOs?
Image: Reuters/Randall Hill
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It’s a given that your job and education history will be listed on your resume, but former student jocks should also find a way to mention their athletic past when interviewing for jobs, according to two new studies.

A new paper by Cornell’s Kevin M. Kniffin, recently published in the Journal of Organizational Research and Studies, tests two main sets of assumptions: The first, that people automatically think of former athletes as more likely to have a whole range of traits that companies love; and the second, that those traits seem to persist and pay off over a whole career.

The first study, a survey of a variety of professionals, found that people with sports experience are not only expected to display significantly higher levels of leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect, but they actually get higher ratings on all three, compared with those who participated in non-sport activities. The only point they score worse on is altruistic behavior.

Not a bad set of assumptions to work with when interviewing for a job. And that advantage seems to continue over decades.

To find out how those perceived traits played out, the second study looked at a large survey of elderly World War II veterans, and their career achievements. Even 60 years after high school, former student athletes in that study reported substantially higher leadership skills, self confidence and respect, and had careers that disproportionately led to upper management. They also displayed more “prosocial” tendencies such as volunteering and giving to charity.

“Based on these results, we show that there appears to be long-term correlates of participation in competitive youth sports that persist for more than 55 years,” the authors write. “More specifically, our results show a positive relationship between participation in competitive youth sports and several measures of long-term personal success and prosociality.”

There are some limitations to the studies worth noting. The data indicate a strong correlation between youth sports participation and success, but the studies relied on self reported information so they can’t support a causal interpretation (which would take a more detailed data set, better able to isolate sports as a factor). The second study focuses only on men, and the authors noted that childhood participation in team sports could also be an indicator of a stable home life, overall cognitive ability, or physical health, which could explain some of the results.

But the two sets of results combined could help explain something that has perplexed researchers. They’ve found consistently that former athletes have significantly higher incomes, something that’s true as early as age 30 (pdf). So, what is it about former jocks?

The researchers have a few suggestions. The first is that sports teams can operate pretty similarly to companies, so people who participate get a chance to develop skills that prepare them for the workplace.

People who play sports are exposed to coaches who enforce group behaviors that don’t always get emphasized in classrooms: mutual respect, trust, confidence, and teamwork. They learn to be led in a positive direction, essentially, and to work with teammates toward a common goal.

Team sports also reward group-level achievement, helping people learn how to function well within an organization. Some combination of all of those skills seem to make for a better—or at least more promotable—employee.

If you were in the high school band instead of the football team, don’t despair. Learning and excelling in music also has a strong and persistent (paywall) connection to success.