How Skills from Sport Transfer to the Workplace

Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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Why student-athletes shine in the workplace; teamwork, communication and leadership

Every year thousands of students graduate college, but we’d argue, they don’t all graduate with as many employable skills as student-athletes. The National Center for Education statistics records that in 2018, some 2.9 million students graduated college but, according to the NCAA, only 2% of college students are student-athletes. This makes student-athletes a rare commodity.

So, let’s look at the skills that the student-athlete experience builds, starting with the melodic tones of the early morning alarm. Whether it’s your favorite song, or the annoying “brrrrrrrrrrrrr” of the cell phone’s radar, you’re going to respond because you’re not going to let the team down; every student-athletes knows you can’t boat an eight with seven and they’ve experienced how hard it is to keep a goal out when you’re a player down in defense.

That team experience and everything that goes with it, translates into the number one skill that employers are looking for – according to the NACE Center For Career Development and Talent Acquisition. In 2018, the Center surveyed employers of new graduates and team building topped the list of in-demand attributes, closely followed by communication and leadership.

Why do student-athletes excel in these areas? Because, they haven’t just learned these skills, they’ve refined them and practiced them with the kind of passion that drives teams to victories. They chose to learn these skills, they expected themselves to and they fought for places on teams based on how good they were at these skills. In short, team building, communication and leadership have become ingrained in their characters, it’s who they are, not a hat they wear when they have to. Being part of a team is second nature, student-athletes have been part of a team for at least half their lives.

1. Team Building

Let’s face it, without exceptional teamwork your win/loss record would put you at the bottom of the ladder. A place nobody wants to be. Comparatively, good teamwork is immediately obvious from the outside.

It looks like requests for assistance and a desire to share, supportive comments and helping each other, people talking co-operatively, sharing the small stuff while they’re working towards the same goals. Using each other’s names (or names that they’re happy with!). Tight teams almost share a shorthand that only they understand. There are established information channels but there’s also spontaneous and unhindered energy. A team does things more effectively and faster than an individual, one of the reasons for this is that a team uses everyone’s strengths. To do that, you have to KNOW what everyone’s strength are and be confident to call on individuals to use that strength. It goes without saying that this process also accommodates everyone’s ‘not so strong’ areas.

Student-athletes will also be used to, and comfortable with the concepts of potential, growth and improvement. At the start of every season, a playing group will outline strategies for improvement; physical and strategic. The present is only a snapshot of potential, it is not the sum total of an individual’s capacity. There will be things that everyone works on individually and things the team work on together.

People in a team rely on each other, individuals stand-alone but work together to achieve results they all want.

In sport, every team member has a role, some are point scoring, some are technical and some are behind-the-scenes, but all of us have to succeed at our jobs for the whole team to succeed. Enabling every team member to perform consistently at their best isn’t optional, it’s essential, and in sport, a team’s capacity to do this is measured on a weekly basis in wins and losses.

Understanding what it takes to facilitate optimal performances for every team member is a lifetime skill and one that’s easily transferred to the workplace. 

Diversity and inclusion are givens in the team that functions effectively. Student-athletes are used to seeing people for their skills, abilities and what they contribute to a team. Their skin color, gender or socio-economic status are not part of their contribution, so inclusion just happens without a focused or contrite effort.

In terms of diversity, a good team benefits from a variety of ideas and perspectives. One sure way to get diverse perspectives is to include team members from diverse backgrounds. Straddling a wide variety of environments, situations and personalities is part of working life, it’s also part of sport.

Sport sits in a cross-section of cultures, it attracts passionate people – both players and spectators. Student-athletes have had to perform whether they’re comfortable in these situations, with their team mates or the opposition. Over years this breeds its own kind of tolerance and acceptance for diversity.

2. Communication

Communication is critical in effective teams. Without clear, concise and regular communication there’s lots of mistakes. In competition, this amounts to a high error rate and confusion. Not a winning landscape.

Everyone must understand the ultimate goal in the same way and pathways have to be clear so skill transfer and project learning can take place, not to mention team culture and chemistry. Stating outcomes is not enough, it’s imperative that every team member hears the messages and understands the part they play in creating a successful outcome, just like in sport.

The advantage of sport as a learning environment, is that communication in competition leads to points, a win or a loss, a simple and immediate measure of success.

Former student-athletes can draw on examples of when they got communication right and the results that stemmed from those exchanges. They can talk about communicating in different environments, the training facility and the sporting field. They can talk about communicating with coaches, teammates and the opposition. They’ve been under pressure and rallied teammates to assist them stage a come-back or secure a victory.

Part of the athletic experience is skill development. Former student-athletes have been taught and have taught technical skills. They know how to break tasks down, simplifying each stage until the end result is successful execution.

Different modes of communication are useful to convey different messages. But, in sport we prioritize interpersonal communication, we know how important it is to get face-to-face communication right, to have the conversation, whether celebratory, instructional or difficult.

Essential processes in the workplace rely on sharp communication skills, so it’s no surprise to see communication high on the list of in-demand attributes. Processes like giving and receiving feedback in a formal and informal way depend on excellent communication skills as well as experience with this kind of information. Student-athletes have been coached or mentored and their success has been reliant upon how well they receive feedback and communicate their needs. A former student-athlete knows how to take feedback, they’ll seek it, take it on and use it to make themselves better.

3. Leadership

Sport is a hot house for leadership, it nurtures, feeds and grows leaders. Student-athletes have seen and developed an understanding of the leadership role.

Student-athletes have been part of leadership groups, they’ve experienced when strategies worked and when they didn’t. They’ve led and been led, they’ve had role models, they know how to rally people behind a set of common goals.

Within a workplace people might need different things from the same leader, it’s the same in sport, former student-athletes have experienced and responded to this.

They also understand that leaders don’t always direct from the top, any team member can show leadership or inspire their team with their work ethic or approach to a specific task.

Student-athletes understand the importance of strong leadership, they know that successful projects result from strong direction and leadership groups attend to details daily, make regular interventions and keep the team on track, so that small problems don’t become insurmountable issues at a later date.

So, a student-athlete’s resume might not contain a long list of employers, or a string of summer jobs, the context of their learning might be different, but the qualities they practice and embed during their time as student-athletes are aligned with foundations of excellence in the workplace.

The skills that student-athletes develop under the pressure of competition are the cornerstone of success in their careers.

We’ve just hit the top qualities, but other’s that student-athletes bring include dedication, commitment, preparation, prioritizing and resilience.

If we can help you usher your student-athletes into their all-important next phase of life, we’d love to help. Our career compatibility tool might be of interest at this time and you might like to read our other articles like this one.


Where to from here…

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to be of service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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