Five lessons from former sports stars turned business successes

4 minute read

Can skills developed in a high-performance sporting environment transfer to the workplace? Yes, says Kate Cooper from the UK's Institute of Leadership & Management – and here are five sporting successes that prove it

We've all been entertained by conference and after dinner speeches where a former elite sportsperson captivates us by talking about their successful sporting career and explaining how much they've learned from sport. Team working, the motivation to pick yourself up after defeat or failure are two popular themes that resonate with us all, regardless of whether we play sport or not. We’re fascinated by the insights, anecdotes and the name dropping, which makes us slightly in awe of this impressive person stood in front of us. But can leadership capability developed in such high-performance environments be transferred to the perhaps more mundane setting of the workplace?

The Institute of Leadership & Management undertook some research into those who play any competitive sport, not specifically at elite level, to explore whether people felt that participation had helped them at work.

The Leaders at Play research revealed that there was indeed transferable learning, and those sport-based skills were most appreciated by those working in the financial services industry. So how do these skills and capabilities manifest themselves in the not-so-sporty workplace?

Here are five examples of former sports people who have transferred into jobs outside sport, not as commentators or motivational speakers but have assumed less glamorous positions in the corporate world – having benefitted from the transferable leadership skills they honed during their sporting careers.

Kristian Chesney

1. Former England Sevens, Saracens and Toulon rugby player, Kristian Chesney, talks about how the confidence he developed on the rugby pitch has enabled him to cope with setbacks in the workplace: “There are so many similarities between the emotional experience of playing elite sport and the day-to-day life of organisations. In sport, when you’re benched, or told you haven’t made the squad, those feelings of rejection are similar to those you feel when you’re excluded from an important client pitch or meeting. This is the time you can call on the confidence you’ve developed in sport to help you deal with disappointments in the workplace.”

Sally Gunnell

2. Sally Gunnell has undoubtedly drawn on the resilience she developed as a 400m hurdler to then develop a successful corporate wellbeing business. After her World Championship silver medal in 1991, when she had been beaten by 0.05 seconds to lose gold, she said: “There’s that little chimp on your shoulder, telling you that you are going to screw it up and throw it all away again. This is where building resilience helps. When something gets in your way, you need to know how to pick yourself up and move on. You learn that these things happen in life and the skill is not to dwell on them but to find a positive out of them. Find out why it happened, learn and move on.”

Pamela Relph

3. Gold medallist Paralympian Pam Relph was unbeaten at rowing for Britain and now has a successful career in marketing. Suffering from the degenerative condition psoriatic arthritis, she had to leave the Royal Engineers aged 20 and look for a new career. The mental toughness she had developed in the army provided a great foundation and her subsequent success in sport meant that at age 26, after two successful Paralympic Games, she was ready to join the commercial world. This drive for personal development and to keep learning are recognised as truly transferable skills and Pam exemplifies them.

Gearoid Towey

4. Former World Rowing Champion and Trans-Atlantic rower, Gearoid Towey, used his sporting experience to create a successful business helping other athletes to transition into the world of post-playing work. Learning from others is a skill that can help to ease that transition, as Towey explains: “We all have our own journey to take but learning from others who have walked the path is always useful. The thing I underestimated was the process of finding that next purpose. Having a degree wasn’t enough. I probably should have spoken to more ex-athletes while I was still competing. Just to get a flavour for what might be in store.”

Steve White-Cooper

5. Ex-Harlequins and England rugby player Steve White-Cooper has also developed a second career supporting former athletes and military personnel to find a new position outside of sport and the forces. Following his retirement from rugby at 27 and his move into recruitment, Steve recognised through his own development that the skills gained from elite sport were directly transferrable to the workplace, with the same ingredients for success applying to both sports and business: “I always felt that the success that I had came down to what I got from sport.”

Many sporting greats disappear off the public radar once they are immersed in the world outside sport, as they no longer make headlines. However, as these five former sports stars prove, the transferable leadership skills and capabilities nurtured by playing competitive sport – for example confidence, their understanding of the team work dynamics, mental toughness, willingness to reflect honestly and critically on their own performance – contributes to a desire for high performance in other areas of their lives and, most likely, making great colleagues.

Kate Cooper (pictured below) is head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management

Kate Cooper, ILM

Published 6 November 2019
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