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Why athletes make the best hires

By Liz Melton · November 3, 2023
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Back in my figure skating days, I was more worried about landing a triple axel than landing a client. But as a working adult, I've found that my elite figure skating background has served me well. 

And it's not just the college essay tropes of "time management" and "organizational skills" that transfer to the corporate world. There are real benefits to having an athlete or former athlete on your workplace team. 

I interviewed several other former athletes who are now business leaders, and each shared how their experiences as competitive athletes prepared them for success in the working world. There are also traits that former athletes seem to share at work—traits that hiring managers and HR leaders would likely find valuable assets to their teams.

5 traits that set athletes apart at work

If you're a hiring manager, finding out a candidate is an athlete might give them an advantage over the rest of the field. And don't just take it from me—other athletes have weighed in on this topic, too.

Trait 1: They show up prepared

I remember the first time I showed up late to a conditioning class. It was during my first summer of all-day training. I was on a break, eating my Gogurt snack and reading Harry Potter outside, completely losing track of time. When I realized the time, I tied my skates faster than ever before and stepped on the ice three minutes late.

My coach, who I wanted to impress greatly, gave me a disappointed look. And then they told me to do laps around the rink for the rest of class with my arms held up, outstretched to my sides. My arms were sore for a week.

From then on, I was always on time. I set double alarms for me and my mom, who took me to the rink. I set out my clothes the night before. I packed my lunch and snacks the night before. I learned my schedule by heart.

My friends on sports teams in college would do something similar with each other, holding teammates accountable. There's a shared responsibility that comes with being an athlete, and that translates to work.

Grace Cuchilla, Head of Sales Operations at Pryon, a company that specializes in knowledge management software for business, tells me how martial arts training was also business training: 

"Preparation was paramount in finally achieving my first black belt in Tae Kwon Do after seven years. For each new belt, there is a test, and it is cumulative, building on all of your knowledge and practice. [It's] not something you can learn at the last minute.

"In my work, I've made a habit of showing up with a well-prepared message, covering nuance and possible objections. It takes vetting and refinement to build a strong message and sales program. Anything less will fall flat. It all comes down to preparation."

Kayla Franklin, Product Marketing Director at Salesforce, tells me how her time cheerleading in college carried over into how she handles projects at work, too. 

"In cheerleading, I was taught to always 'sweat the details.' Every movement—stunts, jumps, backflips—requires precision. The attention you place on the small things compounds into greater results.

"I apply that same tenacity to any project at work. From pinpointing just the right word in new messaging or positioning to triple-checking all the elements of my campaign, sweating the details has helped me put my (and my team's) best work forward."

Trait 2: They are flexible

So many things can and do go wrong during tournaments and competitions. You could get called into play when a teammate gets injured. Or the US Team may need an alternate, and you have to plan last-minute overseas travel. Your baggage might get lost. Once you get there, the weather could affect your play. The rink may be way hotter than you're used to. You could get the wind knocked out of you in your final warmup or practice.

The thing is, these obstacles don't faze many athletes. They know how to deal with the unexpected—it's what they train for. They know, from years of experience, that something can always disrupt their best-laid plans. But that doesn't stop them from finding a way around it.

Athletes are taught to be adaptable, which can have myriad benefits at work. They, for example, may be better suited in these four critical areas than other candidates.

  1. Detailing Plans B and C (and running through them)

  2. Figuring out how to balance workloads when a team member leaves or is laid off

  3. Fixing problems quickly during launch moments

  4. Working through a customer's disappointment while getting them a desirable alternative result

For me, being flexible helped me roll with the punches at fast-paced software startups where the product and go-to-market strategy were constantly changing. As the primary liaison to customers, I had to keep up.

Learning to go with the flow in my figure skating days helped me create structure and find focus in work environments where there wasn't any.

Trait 3: They take and apply feedback

As an athlete, you're taught from an early age to embrace rejection and frustration.

The first time you learn a new trick, pass to a new teammate, or try out new equipment, you will fail. That's the point of having a coach. They can tell you what you're doing wrong or right and help you perfect your technique. But if you don't learn to listen to your coach and put what they say into practice, you'll never succeed.

Katie Curran, a Security Program Manager at Okta and experienced cyclist, tells me how she wanted to give up when trying running:

"As a first-time cross-country athlete, I remember feeling overly confident in my running—I assumed my proficiency in road cycling would carry over. It quickly became apparent that my cycling endurance did not translate into running on hard concrete, and I immediately wanted to quit. But I got better learning from my coach and my team.

"As a professional, I experience something similar—I get the urge to give up as I push my limits. But my athletic experiences have taught me to stay the course. Setting my focus on the feedback others have given me has always enabled me to succeed and provide value more quickly."

Learning to listen takes time and effort. It involves getting in tune with your body, regulating your emotions, and responding to your teammates' reactions. Most of all, it takes trust—when feedback gets tough, athletes remind themselves that their coaches are trying to improve them, not tear them down.

Mackenzie Kimes, a perioperative nurse at the Mayo Clinic and former figure skater, learned the impact of shifting mindsets early, she says:

"In my sport, feedback as small as moving your arm a few centimeters to the left or placing your toepick into the ice one second sooner saved you from a devastating fall on your triple lutz.

"Learning to shift my mindset about feedback from being all about criticism to being the key to achieving my goals helped me excel in skating and my current career. Seeing minute details like 'drop your needle 10 degrees' or 'move your sterile field closer to you' as opportunities to become more proficient has allowed me to grow into a confident, competent nurse."

Jason Thomas, Director of Finance at GoodRx—and another former competitive figure skater—shares a similar story about feedback:

"I knew the responsibility of my coach was to make me the best I could be, and that required constructive criticism. It wasn't personal. Now, at work, I dissociate my emotions from feedback, knowing it will make me, my team, and the company better. I teach my direct reports to do this, too. It's a superpower athletes have—we're experts in the practice of feedback."

Absorbing and acting on feedback isn't a skill that all employees have. Because athletes have years of experience receiving and taking direction, they'll take performance reviews to heart. Athletes might be more likely to make a plan to get better, work toward it, and not stop until they get it.

Trait 4: They know how to work toward goals

When I was little, my dream was to go to the Olympics. That's quite lofty, considering how few figure skaters make it. My coaches helped me whittle that big goal into smaller ones that would eventually get me to that world-class level. Get to the final round at my first regionals, go to Junior Nationals, and qualify for X international competitions. These goals gave me something I could actually work toward.

Liz figure skating
That's me!

Athletes make and achieve goals from a young age, making it easy to do the same thing at work.

The first time I heard about SMART goals, I realized that my coaches had been teaching a similar philosophy. Like most athletes, thinking in terms of highly granular, time-bound goals was my default, so breaking down complex objectives into specific KPIs or OKRs at work came naturally.

I developed a system to track progress every week leading up to performance reviews. This approach motivated me to keep working toward my goals, take ownership during 1:1s, and prepare ample evidence for promotion conversations.

Trait 5: They are good at building relationships

There's a lot of camaraderie in athletics—even in individual sports like figure skating.

At the rink, I had exposure to many peers with different personalities. Besides making friends that I still have to this day, I also cultivated deep relationships with the other people on my training team: coaches, ballet instructors, off-ice trainers, massage therapists, physical therapists, choreographers, and dressmakers.

Interacting with and learning from everyone in your sports world enables you to get along with pretty much anyone at work, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what their struggles might be. That builds empathy and leadership that serves you well. 

Katie, the Okta Security Program Manager, tells me she learned to gain trust as a member of a cycling team. 

"As a member of a road cycling team, I learned to gain others' trust in so many small ways, from holding consistent speeds so my teammates could ride on tailwinds to warning the group of upcoming obstacles.

"Bringing this experience to work has been critical as a Program Manager. I have to find ways to build trust with folks across the whole org to lead them confidently through major projects. Backing my team members ensures we succeed as a unit."

Knowing people's talents and feelings can help guide direct reports, add a personal touch when speaking with customers, or sense something is stressing your boss and take it off their plate without them asking.

Best of all, athletes know how to pump people up—they've been doing it to themselves for years! 

Take a chance on an athlete

When reviewing a resume with athletic experience listed, pay attention to those bullet points, as they could reveal more about a candidate than their ability to perform a triple axel, run fast, or effectively kick a ball into a net. That experience may also equate to grit, determination, and the ability to put feedback into action in pursuit of continuous improvement for your colleagues. If you're struggling to find these diamonds in the rough, consider streamlining and automating some of your recruiting process. Get inspired by:

  • 5 ways recruiters can start automating their work

  • Automation for recruiters

  • How we use data to keep our recruiting processes running smoothly at Zapier

  • 5 reference check questions you should always ask

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