As someone who played tennis at a high-level from kindergarten into my 20s (plus engaged competitively in other sports), I have always believed my drive to do well vis-à-vis the competition (versus others and versus my own past accomplishments), in anything I set out to do, is rooted in a values-structure tracing to my competitive tennis days. Some even argue that tennis players make the best employees! Now, this is not about tennis; it’s about former athletes being global leaders.
But this is not any athlete. Most people play sports as a part of their upbringing. If you are like me, I had my children try out a bunch of different sports to see what they liked, didn’t like, and what could diversify their mindsets. This recreational, low-level sports engagement makes for well-rounded individuals, I believe, but doesn’t make them leaders per se. High-level sports, at least college sports or equivalent, and preferably some kind of professional level where you can at least make some money, is what sets the tone for global leadership.
Top athletes are determined; often team-oriented; thrive on people following their lead; have characteristics of complex individuals who can grasp interplays between unique situations; and are winners under pressure. Basically, top athletes exemplify and have the characteristics most multinational corporations seek in their leaders. And these leadership characteristics oftentimes cannot, I would argue never, be taught in school or automatically be built into the make-up of a person. The athlete gains them by taking part in top sporting events.
Personally, I get motivated when we get Ph.D. (doctoral student) applicants at Michigan State University who have a solid background in academics but, importantly, have also engaged in top-level athletics. Then I know they will be very likely to succeed in the cut-throat world we call publish or perish. Research is a knowledge science which centers on pushing the boundaries of our knowledge into new areas. Pushing boundaries is the competitive spirit top athletes are built on.
Plus, as great as Nadia Comaneci was in receiving the first perfect 10 in gymnastics in the Olympics in 1976 in Montreal, her routine would not have received a perfect score in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics or even been close to winning a medal. Athletes push boundaries, get stronger, faster, and just better over time. The same drive helps multinational corporations become better, more competitive, and thriving corporate citizens in the world marketplace (hopefully adhering to the newly created 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations in the process!).
The bottom line is that top athletes practice until they succeed while others may move on to other things; they more often than not achieve their goals; and they constantly evolve and develop new skills and knowledge. More and more multinational corporations are discovering the “secrets” that make certain people top-performing athletes and then try to create the same development programs or scenarios in their business.
But it may be easier to just hire a former top athlete! My viewpoint, albeit biased a bit perhaps, as a former top-level athlete and now reasonably accomplished business professor, I think the world needs more people striving to be top athletes! The benefits are sports achievements, business acumen, and being a winner! You can always be a successful global business leader if you don’t become a sports superstar like Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps.