The old model of a killer corporate instinct being honed on the playing fields of competitive sports is out of date. Although there may still be a correlation between sweat and success, people are experiencing the relationship between sports success and business performance differently. And women, in particular, are benefiting.
You don't necessarily have to draw blood on the hockey rink or get knocked around on the football field to learn the skills of risk-taking and team building. As tai chi expert Al Huang and Olympics sports psychologist Jerry Lynch argue in Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, their book about the relationship between sports and business success, "Why fight your way to the top when you can rise to it?"
As women increasingly rise to the top in business, they're finding that participation in sports does help them--but not in the same way it has traditionally helped men. "I'm not out to smear the other person," says Diane Brockway, a health information company COO and avid sportswoman. "But I do want to win. It's a challenge. If I can beat that person over there, I know that I'm getting that much better, that much stronger."
The rough-and-tumble world of competitive sports, feminists used to argue, taught men numerous lessons that later proved useful in their professional lives--lessons that were denied women for decades. On the playing fields, men learned the rewards of achievement-oriented behavior. They tasted the thrill of overcoming their competitors. They learned to conquer their personal fears. By shutting women out of the game, feminists argued, society was stripping them of the chance to learn the invaluable skills of teamwork, goal-setting, and risk-taking that are so clearly needed in the corporate sphere.
The 1972 Title IX victory, which assured women equal treatment in sports at any federally funded educational institution, marked a turning point in women's athletic activity. Since then, women have taken to the playing fields with a vengeance, particularly in the last decade. A survey of 35,000 U.S. households by the National Sporting Goods Association found that female participation in team sports such as soccer and basketball surged by 57% and 56%, respectively, between 1991 and 1996. And in the adventure categories--sea kayaking, rafting, canoeing--women's participation soared by 116%.
At the same time, women have made steady gains in the corporate world. According to a 1997 report by Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, 80% of the female executives in Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as "competitive," as "tomboys" in their youth who "enjoyed and preferred team activities."
A National Association of Realtors study found a similar pattern among successful young realtors, 73% of whom reported active participation in organized team sports either in high school or college. The percentage (and the success rate) declined for older women, perhaps because of fewer opportunities before the passage of Title IX.
What successful women seem to take with them from sports is not so much a killer instinct to wipe out the competitor as a marked rise in self-esteem. With that comes the desire to help others experience the thrill of accomplishment.
"You gain a tremendous amount of self-confidence in sports," says Brockway.
"When you feel good at what you're doing, it's easier to help other people reach their goals. You want other people to experience that same feeling."
Liz Coleman, a competitive tennis player and an executive with American Express, agrees. Fiercely competitive ("In my work life, I don't want to be second best. I'm top of the heap") she nevertheless wants to share with others what she's learned from sports. "In tennis, if you've done well, it's a high. It's no different at work," she says. "If I've worked with an individual and helped him or her develop, it's the same kind of high."
She also notes the adaptability and cooperation she learned in team sports. "When you're involved in a team, you have to be flexible," says Coleman. "You may not get the number one slot, you may not even get to play at all, so you say to yourself, 'What can I learn from this to get what I want the next time?'"
Flexibility, cooperation, and building self-esteem are what women take away from sports. And, not surprisingly, those qualities are also the trademarks of successful women managers. "Why are women so successful in the workplace?" asks Brockway. "It was always thought that women wouldn't be great CEOs because our style is so different from men. Yet the literature is showing exactly the opposite. Stomping all over your competitor is not the way to succeed."
Diana Digges, of YourWriters.com, is a multilingual feature writer and editor with extensive experience in foreign language communities from Quebec to Central America to the Middle East. She specializes in women's issues and diversity.