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Don’t drop the ball: sports lessons you can take to work

From perseverance to networking, here are 5 ways playing sports can help you get ahead in your career

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Cheerful co-workers huddling at a meeting in a office board roomLike on the sports field, learning to work well with other people and appreciate the skills of your teammates is essential in the workplace (Getty Images/Cavan Images)

If you spend any time in office boardrooms across Canada, you regularly hear sports idioms: someone is learning the ropes, a project is not up to par, a client is striking out. 

But it’s not just the language that’s being borrowed from sports. “There’s a huge variety of skills you can learn through being involved with sports and everybody is going to take away something a little bit different,” says Tanya Forneris, associate director, School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia. 

Professional accountant and marathon runner William Hallett says it’s all about building life skills; and those life skills can be translatable to work skills. 

Hallett is no stranger to training, having twice completed the world-famous Ironman. He also competed with the Triathlon Canada National Team and estimates he’s completed more than 100 triathlons. Currently a VP with the Vancouver Foundation, Hallett previously held an executive role with Sport BC, and experienced first-hand the skills athletics develop. 

“Those skills are translatable through your entire life—whether it be academically or a business environment,” he says.

Here are five ways sports can help in your professional life:

1) TIME MANAGEMENT

Whether you have a high-level athletic career or are simply embarking on a training regimen, managing time is an important skill. And Hallett says sports will force you to develop that skill. 

“If you’re trying to incorporate a fitness program or a particular sport as well as working or family, then you have to be very effective at time management,” he explains.

Flexibility is a big part of managing time, he adds: “When you want to do something, you might not be able to do it. For example, if I needed to go to the pool to do a swim program, the pool might not be available at that time. So I might have to rejig my whole schedule.”

2) PERSEVERANCE

You can’t be affected by short term problems—you’ve got to look at the long game, Hallett says.

“There are peaks and valleys in performance,” he says. “You’re not always performing at the top when you want to. And that’s kind of the way it is with business too—sometimes you’re not happy and other times you are. But you’re in it for the long haul.”

Forneris says we’re starting to hear more high-level athletes speak about learning from mistakes they’ve made. 

“Just to be able to pick one’s self up from failure and move on. Those are the things that elite athletes learn because it’s not smooth sailing the whole way through,” she says. “And I think when you’re first starting off your professional career, there are little stumbling blocks along the way. You learn things from the little mistakes you’ve made and how to overcome them. Athletes can be really good at that.”

3) TEAMWORK

Learning to work well with other people and appreciate the skills of your teammates is essential in the workplace. And where better to learn collaboration than on the sports field?

Forneris says this is where we see the importance of coaches in youth sports. 

“Coaches help them identify these skills; what teamwork is all about, what it means to be a team player, and how you can use it in your school work and your workplace,” she says.

Team sports also require players to learn valuable communication skills, including nonverbal cues during the course of a game.   

4) NETWORKING

Running a half-marathon might not make you a more effective networker, but Forneris says she always advocates for getting involved in activities outside your work because they could turn into networking experiences. 

“You never know who you’re going to come in contact with within that kind of activity,” she says.

It doesn’t even have to be a team sport, she adds. There are lots of running clubs in addition to the recreational sports leagues. And the environment can make it easier for people who might struggle in more traditional networking settings. 

5) FOCUS

Another important skill you can learn from sports, Hallett says, is being able to stay focused.

“Certainly, accountants are known for being calm most of the time. And I think that’s one of the things that sports and athletics instills in you,” he explains. “While you might be upset, you learn to control your emotions. You can bring that stability and calmness and confidence to the job that other people may not be able to have.” 

GET AHEAD WITH SOFT SKILLS

Playing on a team isn’t the only way to develop the skills you need in the workplace. Learn three ways to develop your soft skills and sharpen your office etiquette as well.