10 Powerful Women Who Honed Their Skills Through Sports

I haven't held a racket in 10 years, but my high-school memories of winning varsity badminton championships at the end of senior year (as co-captain, might I add), are still some of the fondest ones I have.

Things I remember: coming back from a few bad plays with my doubles partner and co-captain; the focus it required not to let my nerves interrupt my focus; tamping down on my fury that the other team was mis-calling bad shots (a.k.a. cheating) during the sets; and the sheer joy I felt at making my coach, my team, and myself really proud. I navigated a kaleidoscope of emotions, both positive and negative, and came out whole, and even victorious at the end of it.

Playing sports isn't the only way to learn how to make one's way to a longed for, but hard-to-reach goal, but it can be a very effective one — especially for women. Various studies have showed a positive correlation between female leadership and competitive sports. Sixty-five percent of the women on Fortune's 2017 Most Powerful Women list "played sports competitively in either high school or college; sometimes both."

There may be non-athletic reasons for the link; perhaps parents who enroll their kids in sports come from the better-connected, more financially well-off backgrounds that often lead to high achievement. However, girls who are able to participate often reap intrinsic rewards that are cultivated through the sport itself, not only their lineage. A 2015 joint report from EY and espnW indicated that "girls who play sports have greater social and economic mobility, are less likely to use drugs, and perform better in school."

As ABC News reporter Claire Shipman and BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay investigated while conducting research for their book The Confidence Code, perhaps playing on "the sports field, [where boys] learn not only to relish wins but also to flick off losses," can generate a kind of resiliency in girls who aren't discouraged that is necessary for executives in business. (Or for entrepreneurs.) In a space where girls and women may be less sanctioned for aggression and drive, they might cultivate a belief in themselves that isn't reliant on perfection, but weathering failure — and reveling in victory.

Here are some of the leadership and business lessons 10 top women have learned through sports.

Refinery29 is partnering with Gatorade to find out why girls are dropping out of sports at a faster rate than boys. Click here to read more about Gatorade’s recent “Girls In Sports” study.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Sarah Robb O'Hagan

Robb O'Hagan, the CEO of Flywheel, and author of Extreme You, has experience playing a variety of sports including tennis, field hockey, skiing, sailing, and swimming. She told Lean In what it was like to participate "as a teammate, an individual and, whenever I got the chance, a captain," in a country like New Zealand where "sports are a national pastime – and you are expected to play — regardless of whether you are a boy or a girl."

"There is no doubt in my mind the lessons of sport have fueled my life and my career. I learned how to win and to lose, how to both lead and work with a team toward a common goal, and how to learn and improve myself along the way."
Photo: D Dipasupil/FilmMagic.

Linda G. Alvarado

Alvarado is the president and CEO of Alvarado Construction, and a co-owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Per The Denver Post, she is the first Latino member of a team’s ownership in Major League Baseball, and the second female owner in the big leagues.

As the member of several boards (which tend to be male-dominated, especially in the corporate world), Alvarado told Hispanic Executive that sports served as a point of connection. Discussing her first corporate board experience at age 27, the publication wrote:

"We played sports together,' [Alvarado] remembers, adding that she was challenged physically at a young age. 'I had a hernia at five. But you don’t look for excuses to quit,' she says, offering a kind of business mantra. 'You just get better at the game."

Ashley Blackwood

In high school, Blackwood, a sports publicist, branding strategist, and the cofounder of The Majors, played four years of varsity basketball (as point guard), four years of AAU basketball, and ran track for one year, making it to state in three events and winning gold/first place in the women's 4x4 relay. In college at Florida State University, she played intramural basketball and flag football in college, and interned for the men's basketball team. She told Refinery29:

"Growing up without a lot of money and resources, sports was a safe and affordable outlet; it was a healthy way to express my desire to compete. Regardless of your race, religion or creed, [or] how rich, poor, tall, skinny [you might be], you can play sports. Playing sports evened the playing field. The effort you put into developing as an athlete and practicing with your team directly impacted the results of the game. I see business as a game: how you play and train for work directly influences the results.

"In sports and in competition, teams are comprised of people who are different from you. I walk into meetings as if I am walking onto a basketball court, a leveled playing field. Confident, poised, and knowing that no matter what your experiences and background are, the work that I put in [assures] me that I can contribute to the team.

"As a former athlete, there are so many life lessons learned by playing sports and interacting with people from every walk of life. The practice, strategy, game planning, offense, and defense you play in a game can be applied to navigating your career and competing for the life you want."
Photo: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

Meg Whitman

Whitman, the president and CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, was a multi-sport athlete who played varsity lacrosse, tennis, and basketball in high school, and was the captain of the swim team; she also played NCAA squash and lacrosse at Princeton University.

In her book The Power of Many, Whitman wrote: "I liked team sports the best. 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?'"
Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images.

Michelle Kwan

Kwan is an Olympic figure skating medalist who worked as a coordinator and campaign staffer for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. She talked to Money magazine about learning to translate the lessons she learned as an athlete to her academic career as a graduate student at Tufts University.

"That's the grit and perseverance that you learn in sports that is a life lesson. When I was in grad school, I thought that was how you fall — but you don't fall in front of thousands of people, and you learn from your mistakes," she said. "As an athlete that's something I always take with me. You fall every day, whether it's in a job, or you miss something else, but you learn how to do it better next time. You learn it in sports. That's a life lesson."
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images.

Irene Rosenfeld

Rosenfeld, who recently retired from her position as the CEO of ubiquitous snack food company Mondelēz International, was deep into athletic from a young age. She was "often the last person picked for kickball in elementary school and she was easy prey in dodgeball," the Chicago Tribune detailed, "but she persevered, gaining competence and confidence. By junior high and high school, she had blossomed into quite a competitor, playing volleyball, field hockey, softball and basketball."

In Venus Williams' 2010 book Come to Win, Rosenfeld said, "I'd like to think I could have become chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods even if I hadn't been an athlete, but I truly believe I am a more focused, more competitive, more successful leader as a result of my experience in sports."

Shana Renee Stephenson

Stephenson, a sports cultural analyst and the cofounder of The Majors sports summit, told Refinery29 that she is not a former athlete, but grew up with a deep love for sports that shaped her career.

"My love for sports developed at a very young age. My older brother played football from the time he was six years old, through college. So, you could say I was born into sports. Every fall, for almost 15 years, we'd burn gas and miles traveling up and down the highway to attend his games. It quickly became a lifestyle for us. I know this may sound odd, but it's sort of our love language — or mine at least!

"I transitioned into sports after having a whole other career in fashion and digital marketing. So, I went from a female-dominant environment to the total opposite. The transition was drastic and eye-opening. I quickly learned, especially as a black woman, to be assertive but not aggressive. Tenacious but not stubborn. Decisive but flexible.

"Also, I recognize there are young black girls who aspire to be where I am today. It's my responsibility to blaze a path for them, so I'm hyper-aware of how my gender and race define my role in this space. That means fully owning my style, life experiences, culture and applying those insights to my daily work. As a leader, I'm at my best when I'm most authentic, so I only engage projects and partners that align with my purpose. That's how, after 10-plus years in a very demanding and ever-evolving industry, I've not only been able to survive, but also thrive."
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Mónica González

González, a sports analyst and former pro-soccer star, is also the cofounder and executive director of Gonzo Soccer, a nonprofit soccer and leadership academy for girls in Texas, Mexico, and Colombia.

In a conversation with ESPN about her organization's work, González said: "My biggest lesson is how much energy it takes. I've trained every day for the Olympics and World Cup and I've never had an exhausted breakdown like I've had with this. I hit a wall and physically was not well and what I've learned from that is that I'm not the only one. The more I've shared that with people in the business the more I realize that it's happened to almost everybody."
Photo: Dave Allocca/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock.

Venus Williams

Tennis star and fashion designer Venus Williams told CNBC that "sport is so much like business. It's all about strategy. And it's all about learning from losing. It's all about setting goals."

She recently described her mindset toward accomplishing goals in both sports and business in Fast Company, saying, "There's always a price. If you decide not to put in the work, there's a price. You won't succeed or get to the level you possibly could. If you do put in the work, there will be sacrifice there too — your time, or your sleep, or your peace of mind. There's always a price and you have to pay it."
Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic.

Billie Jean King

Tennis legend Billie Jean King has been in the news a lot recently, promoting the Battle of the Sexes film, which chronicles her iconic match against Bobby Riggs. As a woman who has fought for equal pay for women in sports for years, though, King has always made headlines.

She recently talked to television showrunner Shonda Rhimes about the idea that "sports is a microcosm of society," saying:

"I knew I had to win and I felt if I did not win it, the women’s movement, women’s professional tennis, and especially Title IX (which had been passed on June 23, 1972) would suffer a huge setback. When I won, women told me they had the courage to ask for a raise and they had the confidence to dream big and go for it. [...]

"Sports are visible and people relate to sports. If you look at society, politics, business, you name it, there are so many similarities when compared to sports. The successes, failures and challenges mirror each other and sports are often easier concepts for people to grasp because it is so visual.
Related Video
Load more...