For as long as I can remember, I have heard that being involved in sporting activities can potentially develop your interpersonal and leadership skills. 

In high school, my physical education (PE) teachers (what some may identify as gym coaches) all tried to get me enthused about the practicality of sports. However, I was more interested in the theoretical aspects. 

My approach was okay because education, in my experience, is hardly about every student being adept in the same field. Where some of my classmates excelled in practicing sports, I excelled in studying the theory and appreciating the practicality of those sports. Being an active participant in sports was another story.  

Regardless, those teachers were right in more ways than one. When you consistently play a sport or participate in sporting activities, some key leadership skills and traits are taught, honed, and developed. This is not to say that I missed opportunities to develop the same leadership traits by other means.  

I must say, though, that quite a number of my high school peers who were active participants in sports are now among the top performing professional athletes on the world stage. Their success is not an accident by any measure. Their success is proof that consistency and continued improvement are important. Their success highlights that being leaders in their own right has propelled them to their current level.  

Fun fact:  

Did you know that an estimated 95% of Fortune 500 leaders participated in high school athletics?  

What makes athletes leaders in their own right?   

According to James Bailey’s “Athletes: Natural-Born Leaders” in Bloomberg Business Week, there are five reasons why athletes make great leaders. They are: determination, teamwork, followership, handling pressure, and being cognitively complex. Three of the five are described below.  

Determination: “Professional athletes are determined.  True, many are endowed with physical gifts, but realizing them is hard work.  Progressing in sports means negotiating an increasingly exclusive series of hurdles that can’t be cleared without discipline, focus, patience, practice, and more practice.  It takes decades of sweat equity to bring whatever a leader possesses to fruition.  We simply won’t follow someone who hasn’t demonstrated determination.” 

Appreciating Fellowship: “Professional athletes appreciate followership.  ‘Follow the leader’ is not just a playground game.  It’s an experience in serving a greater purpose.  Athletes understand the tangible advantages of executing a plan.  Leading is rooted in having learned the lessons of following.”  

On the matter of followership and what people want from leaders. It is said that they want trust, compassion, stability, and hope. These four needs are the result of Rath, Conchie, and a Gallup research team which asked more than 10,000 followers what the most influential leaders contribute to their lives.  

Ability to Handle Pressure: It is part of the life of a professional athlete to perform under pressure from all angles. The investment in time, talent, money, and reputation weighs on them and those thoughts are ever-present while performing and at rest.  Athletes have to check anxieties and injuries at the door to stay calm, cool, and collected in order to perform at their best.  It requires a certain amount of level-headedness to perform optimally despite pressures.  

So, what is the relationship between sports and leadership from the athlete’s perspective? The answer can be found in the habits and the performances that follow habit development.  

In order to excel as an athlete, particular habits and practices should formulate your regime. The same principles apply to non-athletes who are leaders. If you want to do well and be among the best or become the best athlete, your habits will play a crucial role. It is the habits that add to leadership skills and performance as a leader.  

Let’s explore some of these habits. 

Set goals 

Every athlete wants to win. While admirable, most successful athletes also have more specific goals in mind, and they develop plans for reaching them. An athlete’s goal may be to set a personal record. Another may be to produce a specific score in a judged event. Most athletes formulate a series of goals, like qualifying for a semi-final, and then a final and then medalling, for instance. 

Goals enable athletes to focus and achieve. Barring ties, only one athlete or team wins a gold medal in each event. By setting and achieving goals, they can gauge other accomplishments along the way. This is regardless of the outcome on the outcome in the end. Importantly, goals can be performance or habit based.  

Setting goals provides athletes with structure and constant motivation, which ensures continual progress. 

Envision and identify with success 

Most athletes recognise that a significant proportion of performance is mental. Elite athletes frequently report visualising their success before it happens. By playing a “mental movie” of their conquests in upcoming competitions, they not only improve their performance, but also pre-emptively calm their nerves.  

The clearer the visualization, the more powerful the impact.  

Nothing will cripple performance like damaged confidence. It is important to note that mistakes contain lessons. However, but dwelling on mistakes will inevitably lead to their repetition. When athletes make mistakes, they try to learn from and forget them instantly so they don’t linger. Having a short memory and identifying with past successes helps athletes maintain a high level of performance, even after major setbacks. 

Work with coaches 

Similar to a mentor, coaches guide, provide insight and teach their athletes how to become their best self. Athletes are fortunate to work with a variety of coaches invested in their success. A strength coach can help design an individualized training program, a nutrition coach, for example, can make specific pre- and post-workout recommendations, and a sports coach can help the athlete set performance and habit goals. Essentially, coaches help athletes stay focused and maintain progression. Coaches tend to remove many of the stress and allow their athletes to focus more on the implementation side of things. 

Take Ownership, Accountability, and Responsibility 

Holding oneself accountable and taking ownership means taking full responsibility for your own progress, without excuses or blame. It is a big lesson that transforms great talents into great athletes, because they’ve recognized their performance is in their control. Practicing accountability can look like asking the requisite questions at the right times, and then correcting what needs attention. These questions include:  

  • Are you cultivating responsibility (taking charge of a situation when called for)? 
  • Are you doing this with accountability (a willingness to accept all the consequences, good and bad)? Are you bringing some reliability (ownership that’s day-in, day-out)?  
  • Are you practicing commitment (doing more than what’s merely expected)? Truly taking ownership means that you are a genuine leader. You’re dependable and deliver beyond what anyone expects of you, which is why mastering ownership won’t benefit just you, it also benefits your teammates, family, or friends, who know they can count on you in the clutch and always. 

Take another look at the habits above and imagine that the conversation does not include sports or athletes. You should be able to see or realise that leadership skills, traits and habits are not restricted to any one group or category of people. The stand-out things are the principles and the ways in which you apply them to your personal and professional life.  

The Key Lessons

  1. Without a clear path, a leader will not be sure of what steps to take or how to guide those who look up to them.
  2. Leaders ought to be visionaries. Without the vision of succeeding or excelling in the projects that you work so hard on; the morale is headed one step in the wrong direction. Sometimes, you need envision the victory in order to gain the boost to actually become victorious.  
  3. Though some leaders coach and mentor others, they also need coaching and mentorship to help them become the best leader they can be. 
  4. Without accountability, a leader’s role is next to crippled as there is no acceptance of successes or dropped balls, or even an identified way forward. Casting blame on others when things go awry or taking the trophies for other people’s success is a big failure. Remember this, when you point at others, a few other fingers are pointing back at you.  

Other ‘Leadership’ Lumorus Blogs

Leadership Styles: A comparative look through the lens of the Ukraine Crisis

Two Key Teachable Leadership Lessons from Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ Scandal

Nelson Mandela Day – Social Justice, Equity & Inclusion


Six Habits of the Athlete Mindset – Nike 

Top 10 Habits of Elite Athletes – Fox News 

Five Habits of Successful Athletes – Training Peaks  

9 Habits of Olympic Athletes – Entrepreneur  

What Followers Want from Leaders – Gallup 

Candice Stewart

Candice Stewart is a writer with interests in entrepreneurship and education. She is also a blogger with a focus on life experiences and the teachable moments that they bring. Candice is passionate about the support of mental health and the special needs community as well as issues in accessibility, and inclusivity faced by people from those spaces. At Lumorus, she engages in research for Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI) across various fields and the importance of incorporating those concepts in business operations. She holds an MA in Communications for Social and Behaviour Change and a BSc. in Psychology from the University of the West Indies, Mona.


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