A new report by The Institute of Leadership & Management ‘Leaders at Play’ reveals that participating in competitive sport gives people an advantage in their working lives.

  • 51 per cent of senior managers believe that participating in competitive sport increases career opportunities  
  • 34 per cent of women have never competed in competitive sports compared to just 14 per cent of men
  • Three quarters of workers who play competitive sport believe it gives them skills and capabilities that provide them with a workplace advantage
  • While employers recognise the benefits of employees playing competitive sport, only 20 per cent support their staff to get involved, and just 10 per cent actually offer time off to compete 

 In a study of more than 900 respondents, 75 per cent of people who take part in competitive sport believe it gives them the skills and capabilities that provide a workplace advantage. 

Women are at a disadvantage

However, while the majority of those who play competitive sport and senior leaders recognise the career benefits of playing sport, it is the female workers who have less of an advantage, as 20 per cent fewer women have ever competed in competitive sports than men. 
Kate Cooper, Head of Research, Policy and Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management, said: “We live in a competitive world and our research clearly shows that the capabilities honed through sport are transferable into the workplace. Most interestingly, our findings reveal these capabilities give people a competitive advantage that is clearly recognised by senior management. However, if women aren’t participating, this puts them at a disadvantage when accessing career opportunities and affects gender equality in the workplace.” 

Employers don’t support their employees

Similarly, even though employers recognise the benefits that are transferred from the pitch to the workplace, only 20 per cent of bosses then go on to support their staff in participating in competitive sport, and nearly 40 per cent provide no support for any sporting activities at all.  

Transferable skills from pitch to workplace

The top six capabilities developed through competitive sport that can be transferred to the workplace were identified as teamworking, confidence, building cohesion, mental toughness, a drive for personal development and, so important for high achievers, an ability to reflect critically on performance. 

 Kris Chesney, former England Sevens, Saracens and Toulon rugby player, and Institute of Leadership & Management Sport Report Ambassador said: “There are so many similarities between the emotional experience of playing elite sport and the day-to-day life of organisations. In sport, when you’re benched, or told you haven’t made the squad, those feelings of rejection are similar to those you feel when you’re excluded from an important client pitch or meeting. This is the time you can call on the mental toughness or the confidence you’ve developed in sport to help you deal with disappointments in the workplace.”   Kris commented specifically on developing teamwork through competitive sport: “I learnt, playing rugby, that when you’re in a team of people and you have some useful feedback for one of them, you may not necessarily be the best person to deliver that feedback for it to be the most effective. Similarly, in the workplace, when you see someone in your team could benefit from some feedback, in order to achieve the desired outcome, who delivers that feedback is absolutely as important as what the feedback is.” 
Danny Powell, Skill Acquisition Developer, British Para-Swimming and Institute of Leadership & Management Sport Report Ambassador confirms that sport develops transferable capabilities, saying: “My experience of working with athletes and coaches across a range of sports has helped me to see first-hand how the skills we work to develop are extremely beneficial when transitioning into a new field.”   Danny’s experience supports The Institute’s findings that teamwork, confidence and resilience are three capabilities, among many others, which can be developed in sport and provide an advantage off the pitch. He continued: “In sport, the qualities needed to succeed and to cope with setbacks must emerge by necessity, as this can be the difference between winning and losing. In the highly pressurised and competitive world of elite sport, this means acquiring skills including leadership, teamwork, focus, communication, ownership, adaptability, resilience and self-reflection. Through my work with the Paralympians at British Swimming, where athletes with a range of disabilities compete at the highest level, I have also witnessed the transformational power of sport and how it provides confidence and self-belief, qualities essential to future life success.” 

Financial sector gets a flying start

City workers benefit the most, as the financial sector reported the highest levels of support for participation in competitive sport (60 per cent), in contrast to the support given to health and charity workers (28 and 30 per cent, respectively). Half of finance workers, more than any other sector, also believe playing competitive sport gives them a workplace advantage. 

Participation supports mental as well as physical health

Fitness is not the sole driver for people to pull on their trainers (31 per cent). People also cited improving their health (29 per cent), challenging themselves (21 per cent) and managing their mental health (18 per cent) as reasons to play competitive sport. 

Gemma Morgan, Speaker, former Army officer, Wales lacrosse Captain and Institute of Leadership & Management Sport Report Ambassador highlights the positive effect of sport on mental health: “When sport is coached well and positive environments are created, it offers an inspiring opportunity to develop personal skills that may become life long and transferable to other contexts. The key challenges we face in society today centre around obesity, wellness and resilience, so I believe that the primary impetus for sports participation must come from reasons of health and wellbeing. The benefits of leadership, team work, goal-setting are fantastic additions, and indeed skills that have been of benefit to me personally, but they are secondary gain.” 

How to create a fair playing field

The Institute’s Kate Cooper added: “Employers need to work out how to encourage participation across all genders. This report confirms the benefits of playing competitive sport, for both health and wellbeing, as well as career development so employers should consider how they can support all their employees to reap all these benefits.” 

Notes to editors:  

To download a copy of Leaders at Play, please visit https://www.institutelm.com/resourceLibrary/leaders-at-playgame-changing-leadership-from-sport-to-workplace.html 
For more details or requests for interview, please contact Pippa Hanson / Luke Aldridge at Camargue: [email protected] / [email protected] or 01242 577277. 
You can download a press pack about The Institute here
Additional resources:

  • Available for comment / images: Kate Cooper – Head of Research, Policy and Standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management
  • Kris Chesney – former England Sevens, Saracens and Toulon rugby player
  • Danny Powell – Skill Acquisition Developer, PhD Candidate British Para-Swimming & MMU
  • Gemma Morgan - Speaker, former Army officer, Wales lacrosse Captain www.morganeight.com

Research reports:

The Institute of Leadership & Management is a world-renowned specialist membership body that raises professional standards of more than 30,000 leaders, managers, coaches and mentors. Our mission is to inspire great leadership, everywhere. We are a registered charity and governed by a board of trustees.  
         @InstituteLM  www.institutelm.com