Recent studies have found that over 80% of high-performing executive women in Western countries have played competitive sports, and 94% of C-level women executives played sports… most of them all the way up to the University level.

Laura Gentile, Vice President of espnW, said of a recent study:

“This validates long-held theories that women who are athletes are well-suited for the business world and have tangible advantages. From work ethic to adaptability to superior problem-solving ability, these women enter the workforce ready to win and demonstrate that ability as they rise throughout their careers.”

girls sports

Today in Saudi Arabia Education Minister Azzam Al-Dakhil announced there would be no sporting activities for girls in public schools (all-female too) in Saudi Arabia.

Add these to the reasons listed above we should let them play:

Playing sports introduced me to my own power.

Sports allowed my confidence, passion, and drive to shine brightly even as they faded in adolescence for other girls.

It focused my competitiveness and energy on the playing field vs. having it spill out in inappropriate places.

Playing sports gave me kinds of confidence that being the smart girl never could.

Playing sports brought me joy, excitement and camaraderie with other girls that I still seek today.

Playing sports made my body healthy and strong.

These are short sentences for huge points.

I started playing fast-pitch softball when I was 9 years old.  I was the least athletic kid in my class before that, the one never picked for dodge ball… or any other team.  By the end of middle school at age 13 I was a stand-out athlete in the state of Florida. It became a part of who I am.

I am thankful to have had these things in middle school (ages 11 – 13), when so many girls get derailed and distracted by petty differences and much less productive pursuits. When many girls lose track of who they are, I had help discovering it.

On the playing field I learned things about myself I hadn’t seen anywhere else yet:

  • I can focus in a crisis and under tremendous pressure.
  • I’m a generalist, not a specialist. (I played almost every position, just like today.)
  • Other people can see things about me that I cannot see.

There were coaches who saw I could command the team and control play from behind home plate at 9 years old.  Years later a coach put me at first base when the rest of the team had lousy throwing accuracy – I loved the challenge and drama of it!

I can still recall the physical sensation of jumping as high as I could, arm outstretched straight up toward the sky over my head, torso fully extended to catch the ball, and then landing back on the base before the runner touched. GOTCHA!  My face lights up the same way today when my work team is winning.

What did I learn from those experiences? My drive can help the team succeed… and I focus well under pressure.

Sports taught me to solicit feedback and made me feel valuable in new ways at an age when girls’ self-esteem normally plummets. My internal drive, ferocity and focus were assets well channeled on the playing field.

For high-performing girls and women there is almost no place where unleashing the focused, intense part of ourselves is wholly accepted, valued, and lauded.

 

I think of Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg’s January 2015 article in the New York Times, “Speaking While Female,” about the ramifications of women so much as speaking in working environments.  They found that even among powerful women (like Senators), speaking up and competence were negatively correlated in others’ perceptions.  I don’t need an article to tell me what happens next (though they do in their article).  High-performing women the world over tell me they’re accused of being “too assertive,” “negative or critical” & “steamrollers” if they so much as take initiative or share a new idea.

And so I miss the softball field, that space that got created, and wonder how we might carve out that kind of opportunity for ourselves again – to focus, and play full out, to score dramatic points, win and celebrate together. The dialogue we see more around the world lately asks these questions: How can we allow the full range of expression and possibility, of productivity and reward for women worldwide?

The game’s a long one; we are scoring points and should keep playing.
This is one we can win.

softball 1983

State of Florida All-Star Champions – maybe 1983? I look like my brother’s second son in this photo. In the middle with my eyes closed.

 

These are the lessons I learned and would like to give you as reminders. I hope you’ll give them to your daughters and nieces and grandchildren:

  • Allow your confidence, passion, and drive to shine.
  • Find your power.
  • Focus your competitiveness and energy on things that matter.
  • Create environments where that intense part of yourself & other women is accepted, valued, lauded.
  • Be your fabulous, confident self.
  • Work in ways that make you healthy, strong and beautiful.
  • Share joy, excitement and camaraderie with your team, playing and working and winning together.
  • Look for what you’ve learned about yourself and use that knowledge well.
  • Be a great coach – identify & nurture others’ potential.
  • Make giving & receiving feedback good.

This is what I call a Live True, Lead True story. In True North, former Medtronic CEO Bill George illustrates that authentic leaders craft their unique styles from the lessons they’ve learned through experience. As female athletes we’ve learned grit and guts. I talk about sports & leadership with executives so that together we can carve out spaces for ourselves and others to thrive and grow in our chosen fields.

High-performing female athletes have done this already on the track, in the pool, on snow and ice, and at bat; it’s time to play and win again, this time in new arenas… and not just for ourselves, but for our younger colleagues and our daughters, too.

Play ball! Or, as we say, let the games begin.

This post is based on a Keynote address Dr. Self gives to female leadership groups and associations. To have Rebecca speak at your next event, please contact us here.