The old adage that sports builds character, mental toughness, teamwork and other intangibles that will last a lifetime appears to be especially true for girls and women.
Team sports offer lessons to girls that they often don’t get elsewhere, experts say. And research shows experience in sports is a common trait among top female business leaders.
“Sports, and particularly team sports, tend to give women and girls things that they otherwise have a hard time getting, like resilience, grit, knowledge of teamwork, knowledge of leadership. All of these things are crucial and they all are learned probably better on a sports team than anywhere else,” said Debora Spar, a professor at Harvard Business School, who moderated a panel about women in sports, leadership and empowerment the school hosted on campus earlier this year.
The panel, which also featured Harvard’s Women’s Basketball Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith and Boston Celtics Director of Player Development Allison Feaster, presented some of the sharpest minds in sports, government and business.
“Fifty-two percent of senior female executives played sports at the university level, compared to 39 percent of women at other management levels,” said Spar, citing data from a 2014 study of 400 female C-suite executives conducted by espnW and Ernst & Young. “Eighty percent of the female Fortune 500 executives played competitive sports at one point in their life.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, another panelist, was a co-captain of the Harvard basketball team and a pro ball player in Europe. She said she treated her run for office like she would a season — keeping her focus on the big prize rather than on day-to-day wins and losses.
“Every day I just got out there, got after it, tried to meet as many people as possible, tried to ask for their votes and their support,” she said. “And just like in practice, you know, you’re going to have good days, bad days, up and down, but if you treat it like a season, which is what I did … you’re looking at where you get to at the very end.”
Each of the five panelists, who all had a deep connection to Harvard athletics as either players or coaches, shared similar tales.
Frances Frei, a professor at Harvard Business School who helps firms and companies diversify their workplaces, said the skills girls learn playing team sports are analogous to those leaders need in the business world.
“Business is a team sport,” she said in an interview with WGBH News. “The beautiful thing about team sports is that you are conditioned very early to learn the skill of how to rely on others. And then how to be reliant.”
While the value of playing team sports is as big as ever, girls have consistently lagged behind boys in participating.
Girls’ participation in team sports has grown significantly since Congress passed Title IX in 1972, giving them equivalent opportunities in school athletics. But in 2018, about 39 percent of boys between the ages of 6 and 12 regularly participated in sports, while only 31 percent of girls did, according to a national survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
And that’s a crucial age for development and learning how to work with others, according to Frei.
“If I had to pick a time when I think that team sports are most important …. I think that it’s young,” she said.