Are sports skills transferable from the playing field to the boardroom?

Research published by EY suggests that a background in sport is helpful to team performance…
  • “There was strong agreement among female respondents that engagement in sports has a positive impact on the workplace. Among respondents, 72% of women agree that individuals who engage in sports at some level, or have done so, participate more effectively within teams than those who have not had this experience.
  • More than three-quarters, or 76%, of women agree that adopting behaviors and techniques from sport in the corporate environment can be an effective way of improving the performance of teams.”

I very seldom write from a personal perspective. As an accountant, I love the data and the factual evidence. But sometimes a real story can be more compelling than a bunch of numbers!

I grew up in South Africa – a country very conducive to an outdoors life. And living on the east coast, the warm Benguela current makes the Durban surf a lot more inviting than that in Cape Town. So Durbs (as the locals call the place) is a surfers’ paradise….complete with a promenade that, in the early morning, is packed with runners, cyclists and strollers.

And, of course, the staple diet of any South African worth their salt is rugby, cricket and soccer (or football as we know it here). The supporters’ passion, adrenaline and pride in the green and gold sports kit is a key part of the competing team’s strategy.

The final backdrop to my youth is the annual Comrades ultra marathon held in the first weekend in June. The road race is run over a maximum of 11 hours, is just over 90kms (56 miles) and takes place between Durban and the province’s capital, Pietermaritzburg (in the foothills of the mountains). My father’s home is on one of the ‘killer’ hills on the course and each year we would rush to the bottom of the property, endure the smell of wintergreen muscle rub and cheer on the foot weary (slightly mad!) runners. A cousin has completed this event more than 10 times in order to retain his personal race number.

So with all this as a backdrop, you’d think I was sport mad, right? Nothing could be further from the truth! Neither of my parents are very sporty. My dad hiked in those same mountains every year (Bear Grylls style) and there was the odd tennis game or afternoon cycling. But sport was not a huge priority – unless it was from the comfort of the sofa or the grandstand; cheering on the rugby or the cricket. Wimbledon was watched – but more for the novelty of seeing London.

At school, I tried to avoid Physical Training / Torture (PT) whenever possible – even electing double French to avoid swimming several lengths and coming in last. And I’ll admit it now…. I figured out just the right height and length to record for high and long jump (without ever having jumped!) to ensure that the numbers and attempts looked credible but that I would never be selected for the squad. Not proud of that, but it was a survival technique!

And then in my final few years at school, I had a new Maths teacher. Now this was a subject I loved (hence the accounting career). She happened to have played volleyball for Germany, and so she started up the sport at school. She convinced a few of us sceptics to give it a go. She explained the rules, and the tactics. She showed us how we could be calculating and shrewd. She showed us how the angles we used to get the ball over the net could be as sharp as any mathematical equation. And, given that volleyball players need to rotate after each point, we all had to work as a team. In fact, we had to set the ball on our side of the net, and only lob it across on the third strike. That meant we had to communicate and work as a team.

I loved it. It was no longer all about my own time, or my own height, or distance….I no longer had to feel a failure when I was in the bottom few every time. I was part of a team! We were doing stuff together – training hard but having a laugh. And we started to take on other schools and win. It was euphoric!

I had always been shy and retiring up to this point at school. So no one was more surprised than me when I was asked to captain the volleyball side. I am not entirely sure what my Maths teacher/ coach saw in me. But what she unleashed in me was incredible confidence. Looking back, this moment became a watershed in my development as a leader. I found myself, almost naturally, but with some coaching, leading the team. Pumping them up, deciding the rotation, determining our secret signs….and trying to boost morale when we were on a losing streak. I realise now that it was leadership. Back then, I thought it was just making sure that we tried to win every time, but, more importantly, that we had fun together as a team.

And with that, the shy and retiring teenager suddenly became a leader. I went on to captain the 2nd XI hockey side, I became a school sacristan and prefect, as well as a boarding house prefect. I chaired the finance committee for our end of year dance (like a prom)…. And found myself, somewhat surprisingly, in the inter school hurdle relay!

Since then, sport has had its moments in my life. I continued to play both hockey and volleyball at university but I also found that there were plenty of other distractions! Once I started working, I struggled to find the rhythm that allowed me to take part in any sport.

After my husband and I relocated to the UK, I suffered from the “Heathrow injection” and piled on weight. Vanity prevailed and I hit the gym for the first time ever (the reliable weather in SA meant that the great outdoors had always been my gym).

And as I started to do more exercise, I realised that I became more effective at work. I had a balance and the time away from the desk, no matter how hectic the day, allowed me to think and gain perspective. Somehow the issue was more easily resolved after a trip to the gym.

We took up cycling and entered some races, raising funds for an HIV charity that I had set up with friends whilst at university. The money we raised, allowed the crèche to stay open for another 3 years. I was doing something that I enjoyed, that benefitted my work … And also helped those in need! It felt good.

Since then (and after a dinner party with too much wine!), we agreed to start running half marathons. Running has become my lifeline. My work is far too unpredictable for me to commit to team sports, but I know that I need to exercise in order to be on my A game in the office or at the board table. I am frequently at events in the evening, so running to work has become important. It takes some planning and some co ordination ( and the occasional emergency dash to the closest store for something I forgot to pack), but it makes such a difference to my effectiveness. My team can now tell when I have had to skip a run – and have even taken to booking time in my diary to avoid having me be grumpy!

But I will never forget the early leadership lessons that I learnt on the volleyball court. And I often, in those moments of self doubt that we all have, remember the person that showed herself in a natural and unforced way. I did not become a leader – that was clearly always there. I was, however, encouraged to let that raw talent shine and was lucky enough to have someone there to show me how to shape those skills to become more effective.

I hope I continue to learn from those gracious enough to show me.

Now where are my running shoes?

By Carla Stent, Top of Her Game Gamechanger

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