Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?

A “Sporting” Conundrum

It was a casual discussion with friends over a delicious meal. There was lots of lively conversation about politics and social issues when the topic turned to sports and their impact on women’s success and leadership abilities. Then the discussion became contentious.

One perspective, expressed by a college advisor, felt the fixation on sports is not helping students in their college and professional pursuits. In fact, this fixation was de-valuing the non-athlete and taking too much time away from intellectual and academic pursuits. The other perspective, expressed by women who had worked in corporate environments, believed in the value of team sports for women’s success. In their view, post-Title IX women had a stronger sense of confidence and better team-building skills that translated to being a better managers and leaders.

The debate, as I found among my friends, can bring out some very strong opinions and passions.

It has so many perspectives and views based on our personal experiences and observations that the only area of agreement is to accept that we do not agree.

In reflecting on this debate — and thinking about my own beliefs in the power of mindfulness to enhance leadership skills — I decided to investigate what research has found about the impact of sports on women’s leadership and success. I uncovered two studies:

  • The first is a summary of research and commentary from the website Care2 on the 40th anniversary of passing the Title IX legislation and its impact on training new generations of leaders. It cites research conducted by Dr. Leanne Doherty from Simmons College focused on the role of sports cited by recent female candidates running for Congress. Care2 also points to EMILY’s List and the ranking of several members who competed in sports in high school or college.
  • The other study is based on a global survey conducted by EY (Ernst & Young) that links the role of sports in the development of leadership skills for female executives and their ability to motivate teams. The EY survey of 821 senior managers and executives (40% female, 60% male) found that in comparing C-level female respondents to other female managers, far more had participated in sports at a higher level. Interestingly, 55% of the C-suite women had played sports at a university level, compared with 39% of other female managers.

Sports v. Mindfulness Question

Returning to my thoughts on mindfulness and leadership, I could not help but wonder whether sports could do more than a mindfulness practice in honing and enhancing leadership skills. Let’s look at the qualities often mentioned in leadership training, particularly in the emerging focus on mindfulness as a path to enhanced leadership. The qualities more often mentioned include:

  • Discipline and Commitment
  • Confidence, Clarity and Creativity
  • Attentiveness and Awareness
  • Trust
  • Openness and Empathy
  • Magnanimity

I believe anyone who’s had been in a team sport would fully claim most of these qualities are critical to achieving a level of accomplishment in a sport and being part of a winning team. For the captain (aka leader) of the team, these qualities are even more important. So what then could sports possibly teach a leader that practicing mindfulness could not?

The Experience of Losing and Winning

What a team sport does that deepening our introspective skills cannot do alone is give us the day-to-day and week-to-week experience of winning and losing – of knowing that each game won is often followed by one that you lose and vice versa. Through these win/lose experiences we learn how to gracefully lose, respect your competitors and keep find equanimity (or keep your cool). Each time you lose a game, you learn that the world does not collapse, that there is another chance. Even more, you look at each game with a new, refreshed attitude and learn to let go of those deflated feelings of defeat.

In a sense, this experience becomes the foundation that enables each of us to develop our underlying leadership qualities.

For those who have not competed in a team sport, our understanding of how to overcome the devastation of feeling the experience of losing comes through years of working in the “real world” where projects are canceled, products lose out to the competition, start-up companies fail and jobs are eliminated. While these real-world experiences are a part of everyone’s career, it takes longer to gain the long-term perspective that we need as leaders.

In looking back at my “friendly discussion” about the value of sports, I wish I had thought this through before and been able to eloquently defend my belief in sports for women. Just like team sports can get us to our goals of leadership and effectiveness easier and faster, so too this little bit of research would have made my argument stronger and more convincing.

About YogaUnbound

In developing leadership programs for executives, Gail Mann draws upon her 30 years’ experience in corporate marketing, most recently as the Director of Development Communications and Marketing for Partners HealthCare. A graduate of Simmons School of Management, Gail’s dedication to leadership and management was the driving force in her corporate career and has become the core principal of YogaUnbound. Combining leadership and management principles with yoga and meditation techniques, YogaUnbound’s mission brings mindfulness training to leaders and executives for enhanced decision-making, productivity and stress reduction.
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2 Responses to Mindful Leadership: Can Sports Teach Us Anything That Mindfulness Can’t?

  1. Merle Adelman says:

    As a female athlete who was involved in team sports in high school, i agree with the premise that participation can help build and reinforce the skills and qualities noted in the article. It would be interesting to compare the results of participation in “true” team sports that require on-the-field collaboration such as softball,field hockey and lacrosse with participation on teams with individual events such as track & field and gymnastics.

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