If you could only ask one question to a person interviewing for a job at your company, what would it be? Would you ask about their strengths or weaknesses? Their relevant experience? Their biggest success or biggest failure? Where they went to college?

I’d argue that one question you should really ask is, “Which sport did you play?”

All other things being equal, an athlete is the best hire you can make. A candidate with a playing background in sports is equipped with valuable skills that can’t be quantified or listed on a resume. The hours of dedication. The heartache of loss. The commitment required to excel. These lessons, learned the hard way in athletics, are exactly what make the difference between a workplace contributor and a superstar.

Here are three reasons why athletes make the best hires:

1. They have grit.

“Grit” is becoming an increasingly popular term in the classroom. After years of participation trophies that left kids feeling entitled and lazy, teachers and parents today are calling for grittiness–that strength of character that determines whether someone perseveres or quits in the face of a challenge.

Nothing builds grit like the pursuit of athletic excellence. In today’s culture, we spend a lot of time celebrating the winners, the all-stars and the gold medalists. But games and races where the score is kept make up only a tiny percentage of an athlete’s experience. A 50-meter swimmer works 20 hours a week for a race that last less than 25 seconds, in which victory may be measured in the length of a fingernail or the blink of an eye. Working, especially for a startup, is about putting in the hours toward a goal-a quarterly sales number, a KPI, or a new product. True momentous victories in the office are rare. As a manager, you want people who aren’t working for the “win,” but for the pure love of the effort.

2. They can prioritize.

Any athlete, whether they used to play high school football or currently squeeze in marathon training runs after work, is a master of prioritization. As a leader, it’s counterproductive to micromanage your teams, so hiring employees who can self-direct, manage and prioritize their work is essential. Athletes are goal-oriented by nature, which means they’re constantly assessing where they stand in relationship to their objective and fine-tuning the tactics they need to get there. Like a soccer midfielder reading the defense to decide whether to shoot or pass, the best workers constantly reprioritize to focus on the goals that matter most to their team.

3. They know what “team” means.

Almost every company pays lip service to the idea that they’re a “terrific team,” but dig deeper and you’ll find most companies barely operate with the teamwork of a pee-wee basketball team-let alone the champion Golden State Warriors.

If you want a business with a collaborative ethos, adding athletes to the mix is essential. Great teamwork is about subsuming individual egos and agendas under the goals of the group. But athletes understand that teamwork is about more than just sharing the workload, supporting your teammates or jumping in to lead when needed. Great teamwork requires people who understand group dynamics and know how to adjust their behavior and role to fit the organization’s needs.

Athletes spend years on teams where their role is constantly changing and being re-evaluated. Sometimes your team needs you to be a defender, sometimes it needs you to ride the bench, and sometimes it needs you to rise to the occasion and be the star. The best work environments are full of people who can sense when it’s time to step up and lead and when it’s time to cede the spotlight. Hire an athlete and they’ll have this perspective down cold.

So the next time you sit down to interview a potential new hire for your company, ask which sport they played. It may be the best question you can ask.

Published on: Jul 8, 2015