As the Olympics approach, all eyes are on the athletes who've spent their lives training for this one race, this one match or this one moment.

But you don't have to medal in Rio this summer to reap the benefits of playing sports. Many of the world's most successful women grew up playing sports. This foundation of team-building, confidence-building and motivation-building contributes to their success as leaders.

Just before the last Olympics, EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW published a survey about sports and female leadership. Of the CEOs CFOs, COOs and other C-Suite women surveyed, 94 percent of them played sports. What's more, 52 percent of C-suite women played sports in college -- compared to 39 percent of women at other management levels.

Karen Peetz is the president of BNY Mello, the largest deposit bank in the world. She defines her experience playing field hockey and lacrosse as foundational to her professional success in a recent piece for Fortune. "It taught me about equality, competition and grit," Peetz posits. "It helped me get to where I am today: president of one of the largest financial companies."

Correlation is obviously not causation. Playing a university-level sport does not guarantee a young athlete will eventually land her own corner office. But there are many lessons learned as an athlete that apply to a successful career in landing a high-paying leadership position. The EY/espnW study calls out the following benefits.

Build confidence and resilience

Women having the confidence to take a seat at the table is an often-quoted concept from  Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Playing sports can be a major confidence builder for girls to become comfortable taking that seat -- in both winning and losing.

No matter what sport you play, losing is part of the game. Learning how to pick oneself back up from a devastating loss is just as important as learning how to win, the survey reports.

It pays to play

The survey sites research that women who play sports in their younger years will ultimately earn more as adults. Researcher Betsey Stevenson found young athletes might reap the financial benefits as soon as their first job; in her landmark study on Title IX, she found increasing access to sports in high school led to more young women entering high-skill, male-dominated fields that paid more.

And, the annual wages of former athletes average 7 percent higher than non-athletes, the Peterson Institute for International Economics found.

Women like to hire fellow team players

Lastly, the EY/espnW study found that C-Suite women who played sports are more likely to hire other women with sports backgrounds. Of the female executives polled, 74 percent said they believed a background in sports could help accelerate a woman's career. They believed women who played sports were more likely to see projects through to completion, motivate others and build strong teams.

"Whether on the sports fields or in business, it's the gritty people who lead with integrity to help their teams and companies succeed," says Karen Peetz. "They become leaders that people want to follow."

Published on: Jul 7, 2016
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