How Playing Sports As Girls Could Be the Secret to Building Powerful Execs

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It's the heyday of sharing your moment-by-moment accomplishments on social media, which means influential women are more visible than ever. A side effect? Wondering what it takes to achieve that success—whether you're working toward a started-from-scratch biz or rising the ranks in a corporate gig.

While the formula is different for everyone, there's one thing top female execs have in common: 96 percent of women in C-suite level positions played sports growing up.

If that made you put down your matcha for just a sec, consider what former-girl-athlete-turned-current-executive Nancy Green, Athleta's president and CEO, has to say.

"The road to business success is paved with challenges," says Green"I don’t think I’ve ever heard a successful leader talk about how easy it’s been to get where they are. Succeeding at leading a business requires unwavering determination and belief in yourself and your team. Sports are a great way to build those traits."

Growing up in an active family and with several Olympians in her community, Green, who learned how to ski at 2 years old and hike mountain trails at 7, never stopped moving. She went sailing in the summertime, worked as lifeguard through high school and college, and embraced field hockey. (Her position? Right inner and right wing.)

"My experience in sports has often been the voice in my head telling me 'you can do this,' 'don't give up,' 'think about this in a new way.'"

"My experience in sports has often been the voice in my head telling me 'you can do this,' 'don't give up,' 'think about this in a new way,'" Green says. "I credit much of my professional success to being willing to step forward for an opportunity, being willing to take risk, to learn fast from both mistakes and wins."

That's why it's especially disheartening to learn that girls are dropping out of sports at twice the rate of boys by the age of 14. To flip the switch on that statistic, Athleta Girl has joined forces with Girls Leadership to empower and equip young athletes with the courage and confidence to stay in the game.

Below, we talk to female founders and top execs (AKA some of the hardest working people in the biz) about how the skills learned in sports can serve your career and creative life. 

Keep reading for 4 sports-inspired lessons that translate to total career goals.

athleta girl

1. Confidence and tenacity to handle anything that comes your way

Katy Miller
Athleta Girl's Katy Miller with her daughters

It's no surprise that a thick skin comes in handy in sports and in business. Katy Miller, who leads Athleta Girl, says she gained the foundation necessary to reach higher in her career through playing basketball, softball, and volleyball.

"Playing sports instills both a discipline and a confidence that is incredibly valuable to success in life," says Miller. "Navigating the path from childhood to adult isn't always easy, and my teammates as well as my coaches were a powerful support network in ways I didn’t realize at the time."

Today, she works to motivate all girls—including her three young daughters—to get onto the field. "It’s not about being the best player," she notes. "These benefits come just from playing and I believe we can make a difference."

Athleta Girl Stay in the Game

Jihan and Jenny
Swivel co-founders Jihan Thompson and Jennifer Lambert 

2. How to step into leadership positions

In the heat of the game, you make thousands of tiny decisions—a phenomenon Green calls micro leadership. "You don’t have to be the captain to lead," she explains. "The decisions and actions each of us make on the field or in our own lives make a difference."

For Jihan Thompson, co-founder of Swivel Beauty—an app that connects women of color with the best hairstylists—stepping into the captain role of her high-school field-hockey team armed her with a beginner’s guide to leadership. She learned how to focus when her nerves were fraught, reset the team after a loss, and make game-time decisions—all things that served her for building a successful startup.

“You have to get comfortable with trusting your instincts,” Thompson says. “I’ll never forget scoring the winning goal against my school's arch rival. I remember being so nervous but fighting through those nerves, and letting all my practice guide me.” 

Athleta Girl Stay in the Game

3. The importance of building a strong team

Sara Mauskopf
Childhood photo of Winnie co-founder Sara Mauskopf

Ironically, for Sara Mauskopf (CEO and co-founder of Winnie, a one-stop digital resource for parents), playing on a softball team that "literally lost every single game" turned out to be a crucial experience for growing her business. It took two hard-working years for the platform to reach a million users. 

"It was good training for running a startup where it takes a long time before you achieve success," Mauskopf says. "There's a long period of time where you aren't getting any praise or external validation and you can kind of feel like a loser. But you bond together as a team and keep working and doing your best."

Miller considers teamwork one of the most valuable lessons she learned as a young athlete, too. "[In sports,] you play with so many people with different styles and strengths and understand that you win and lose as a team," she says. "The team that works together and finds a way to utilize each teammate's strengths will always beat the team simply with the best individual performer."

Athleta Girl Stay in the Game

4. How to balance and manage a busy schedule

"Everything [in sports] just had its time on the schedule, so there was no skipping it or pushing it off," says Jennifer Lambert, co-founder of Swivel Beauty along with Thompson. "This taught me the importance of carving out time for the important things—gym, work, social life—and sticking to those commitments."

As an on-the-move executive who pencils in HIIT workouts before work and cheers on her daughters from the sidelines at every game, Miller says learning to balance it all is something she's grateful to have learned on the turf. "When I went on to play volleyball in college, it definitely built this skill," Miller echoes. "We had early morning practices, a full class schedule, and traveled to many games. We all knew that school was a priority and supported each other to figure out the balance through it all."

If that sounds familiar to your current work/social/everything situation, that's because it is. With more and more demands on our calendar, prioritization—both of work and of self care—has never been more important. Building an army of girl athletes who can handle stress, work as a team, and lead like bosses? That's a recipe for world domination—or at least, domination of the business sphere.

In partnership with Athleta Girl

Photos: Athleta Girl

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