When I set out to write The Other Classroom: The Essential Importance of High School Athletics, I was focused on how the high school athletic experience contributes to personal development in various ways. I had in mind skills like self-advocacy, conquering comfort zones and embracing team roles and qualities like enhanced self-esteem, character development and citizenship identity. But I learned something else that, while not surprising, I hadn’t anticipated.
The high school athlete—and this of course applies to the college athlete as well—has a leg up in navigating the post-schooling employment market.
The first indicator in my book journey was various research studies. One, for example, showed that high school athletes have higher employment rates, enjoy greater income and ascend to high-status careers. Another study, out of Cornell, found specifically that former high school athletes make better employees than non-athletes mainly because the lessons learned from teamwork in high school extend beyond the high school experience. The study underscored the importance of exposure to coaches who enforce group principles of behavior and teamwork, the pursuit of common goals, the value of group achievement, mutual respect and confidence. Other studies stressed, in addition, the carryover of drive and industry from the athletic experience.
I also found a Forbes article that made its own case for athletics being superior employees. It maintained that athletes operate at more advanced levels in the workplace because they:
- have already honed their time management skills
- bring to the job a well-developed and entrenched work ethic
- know how to handle setback and adversity
- are willing to learn, or in coaching parlance, are coachable, and
- understand how to work in groups, including accepting role.
It follows that many employers use prior athletic experience as a specific hiring criterion. In an interview for The Other Classroom, a senior executive at a major media firm described his focus when he handled hiring decisions:
“I always looked for candidates with team sports in their histories. Invariably, they presented well in person and brought something to the table that if you’re not in team sports, you are unlikely to have. That includes an understanding and respect for collaborative work, an ability to bond with and trust colleagues, and be loyal to them, have their back as it were, and how to deal with success and failure. They also bring a powerful sense of drive to work performance and are result-oriented. They want to get to the end line and know how to get there.”
To my surprise, that thinking extended to the technology field. Here is how a one manager at a global technology firm put it: “Employers in the technology sector, much to the surprise of people outside that market niche, consistently note when job applicants cite their athletic background in resumes. As an employer, I can’t help but agree.”
Indeed, in several interviews I conducted for the book, former high school athletes told me how their high school athletic experience helped them directly in how they perform on the job as adults, especially in management positions. For example, one, a successful financial portfolio manager, spoke to the power of team values:
“In the real world, it’s almost all about teams. Almost every job is reliant on team members and you’re only as strong as the weakest team member. You have to rely on other people and you have to interact with other people and sometimes your ass is on the line because of other people. There’s a big connection between business and having high school teammates, because your business is a team.”
Another executive told me how his high school coach used the legendary 1992 NCAA East Regional basketball final between Duke and Kentucky where Duke player Grant Hill threw a pass ¾ of the floor to the waiting arms of Christian Laettner at the literal end of overtime for a catch and shoot and spectacular win. The coach of the former athlete described how Coach K didn’t tell Hill what to do. He asked him a question: “can you make the pass?” By giving him the option to decide he could do it, he empowered Hill to succeed. After relating this story during the interview, this former athlete told me how he adopted the same facilitative management style for his technology company: “When our social media company had a major developmental crossroads, rather than use an independent contractor for a fix, which many urged that we do, I asked my staff if they could solve the problem on their own. They said they could—and they did.”
I can easily imagine employers and recruiting agencies across the nation having in hand a list of questions and criteria to use in the hiring process based on prior athletic experiences. I can see, too, the use of hypotheticals in interviews that feature the culture of the hiring entity and implicate the many skills and values that underscore vibrant high school (and college) athletic programs. Value-based high school athletic programs can develop student-athletes in ways that uniquely prepare them for the work world and benefit us all.