The Link Between Playing Sports and Being Successful in Business

Jason Hanold
4 min readJan 18, 2024

According to a report by Ernst & Young polling 821 high-level executives, 90% of female executives played sports when they were younger, rising to a staggering 96% in those employed in C-suite positions.

Alex Flanagan is a reporter and host for NBC Sports and NFL Network. She is also the mother of two children who enjoy playing sports. Flanagan started a blog for parents called “I Love to Watch You Play,” sharing insights on how to balance life and youth sports, and providing other helpful information and resources for parents.

Recently, Flanagan shared an infographic from The Drive Group, a recruitment firm, highlighting the benefits of hiring athletes. The graphic is a persuasive visual representation of correlations between lessons learned in youth sports and key competencies needed to be successful in the business world. The Drive Group infographic reveals that 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs played sports in college, including Walter Robb, the former CEO of Whole Foods, and Indra Nooyi, a former college cricket player who went on to become the CEO of PepsiCo.

Former college athletes

Before venturing into the world of business, many of America’s most successful CEOs played college sports. Former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt played football for Dartmouth, working his way up from co-captaining the junior varsity team to starting offensive tackle in his senior year. In the National Football Foundation’s Football Matters to Me campaign, Immelt reflected on his experience playing for the Ivy League squad, recounting life lessons learned on the field he carried with him through his career. Jeffrey Immelt pointed out that it was great to be part of a team that wanted to do something dramatic and win, explaining that not every play works, nor every situation, but once you have it figured out, there is always the next time.

John Donahoe, best known as the CEO of Nike, played basketball at Dartmouth College from 1978 to 1982. He had an impressive season on the junior varsity team. In his career in business, prior to taking on the role of CEO and president of Nike, Donahoe served as the CEO of several other prestigious companies, including Bain & Company, ServiceNow, and eBay.

Building social skills

Playing sport offers much more than just physical health benefits. Not only does participating in sports help to release stress and improve your mood, protecting your mental health, but it also helps hone social skills, forging commitment, determination, and a competitive mindset, attributes that are all highly transferrable to the corporate world.

For companies seeking to close the gender gap, the power of sports should not be underestimated, a fact highlighted by Ernst & Young’s report. Meg Whitman is the former CEO of Hewlett Packard and author of The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and in Life. In her book, she explains that when pulling a business team together, she still uses the basketball aphorisms she learned in college, such as “Let’s throw the ball around a little before a game” and “Do we need man-to-man or zone defense?”

Breaking gender norms

Sports encourage women to break gender norms, a key hurdle to reaching the C-Suite level. In addition, they also teach the values of teamwork and dedication, shaping participants into hard-working individuals eager for advancement and increased responsibility.

Irene Rosenfeld is the former CEO of Mondelēz International and was a basketball player at Cornell before competing and succeeding in the corporate world. After her athletic career was cut short as a freshman, Rosenfeld continued to use sports as an outlet for her competitive spirit by participating in intramural sports. She went on to lead a company worth some $26 billion, best known as the maker of Fig Newtons, Oreos, Triscuits, and other snack foods.

Help with networking

Sporting organizations can also help with networking. Sociologist Lauren Rivera explains that hiring rates increase among candidates who participated in sports with a strong presence at Ivy League Schools, or pay-to-play club sports such as tennis, lacrosse, field hockey and squash.

All sports push participants to hone their teamwork and leadership skills. In addition, there is also a correlation between playing college sports and wealth, with participation in many team sports requiring a significant cash outlay from parents. Taking children to games and training sessions can eat away at time, resources, and energy that many families struggle to spare. It therefore follows that college sports players tend to come from more affluent families, increasing their opportunities both at college and in life.

It is no secret that a disproportionate number of CEOs played sports in their youth. Take for example Mark Zuckerberg, who was a high school fencing star, and Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, who played rugby at Brown. An overwhelming body of research suggests that playing sports from a young age helps to instill the importance of teamwork, leadership, and hard work, all valuable qualities that can be translated to other aspects of life, particularly the corporate world.



Jason Hanold

Executive Recruiter, clients NFL, Google, Patagonia, Under Armour, Gucci, Nike, Northwestern, eBay, UFC, Vail, REI, Electronic Arts, Live Nation, #HR #Recruiter