According to research conducted by Ernst & Young, there's one trait that is shared by a disproportionately high number of female executives. It's a trait that Meg Whitman, Indra Noovi, Marissa Mayer, and many other top female executives possess.

These moguls are all former or current athletes. 

The research found that 94 percent of women who hold C-suite level positions are former athletes. What's more, 52 percent played sports at the collegiate level (compared to 39 percent of women at other managerial levels). There's an irrefutable correlation between athleticism and business success

As a former athlete, having competed for Stanford University's Women's Swim Team, I've come to appreciate why an athletic background is a recipe for success.

1. There's No "I" in Teamwork

Teamwork is a foundation of athletics. No athletic team can be successful without its members working together to reach a common goal.  

Consider Meg Whitman, who participated in lacrosse, tennis, and basketball on the collegiate stage. In her book, "The Power of Many", she explains, "When I'm pulling a business team together, I still use those basketball aphorisms I learned as a young person: 'Let's pass the ball around a little before game time'. 'Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?'" 

Every organization values team players--the individuals who put the interests of the collective group ahead of their own interests. Team-oriented players are more likely to gain the respect of their peers. As well, they are generally quick to gain supporters and sponsors. When, for example, it comes time for a promotion, sponsors typically expend their political capital to help team players advance and seize opportunities that otherwise might have been beyond their reach. 

2. Defeat and Setbacks Are Part of The Game

For athletes, defeat and setbacks are inevitable. Over time, athletes learn the art of bouncing back from defeat. They quickly develop an unwavering resiliency. 

Resiliency is a terrific ally in the workplace, especially if you are female. It's all about picking yourself up, brushing yourself off, and moving on. Women must exude mental toughness in the face of workplace adversity. Resiliency is especially important. To this day, women are often pigeonholed into proverbial boxes. When faced with gender biases that potentially hinder one's ability to advance, former athletes are inclined to exude resiliency. They've already learned how to overcome setbacks and are more likely to break glass ceilings and find a seat in the executive ranks. They're also more likely to be employed in male-dominated industries. 

3. Put On Your Game Face 

Elite athletes know the importance of acting confidently. Without confidence, athletes can display weaknesses that can put them at a competitive disadvantage. From the get-go, former female athletes are naturally inclined to exude confidence. According to Angela Lewis (as cited by Ernst &Young), former professional basketball player and now head of the Global Athlete Media Network, "You can often tell if a woman plays sports simply by her posture."

Confidence is especially important for females in the workplace. Several studies have found that women are generally less self-assured than men. One study investigated Hewlett-Packard's personnel records and found that women applied for promotions only after they believed they had met 100 percent of the job qualifications, whereas men applied after they believed they had met only 60 percent. 

Armed with confidence, women are more assured in their skills and are more likely to ask for what they want and deserve. Such a predilection causes them to earn promotions, receive larger paychecks, and reach the ranks of leadership. 

For women, career advancement continues to be an uphill battle. A background in athleticism can make the battle a little more even-keeled. The Ernst & Young research found that 61 percent of former female athletes believed that their involvement in athletics contributed to their career success. 

What, you may ask, is the ideal sport? A review of Fortune's 2017 list of Most Powerful Women reveals a three-way tie among swimming, basketball, and tennis. 

Published on: Feb 8, 2018