Taking part in sport can prepare you for leadership

If your New Year's resolution is to move more, Shân Wareing shares her reflections on how sport can support growing leadership skills and personal wellbeing

Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Northampton

“Serial winner Wiegman leads Lionesses to verge of immortality by freeing them from fear.”

This headline caught my eye in the days before England met Spain in the final of the 2023 Fifa World Cup. It opened an article about England manager Sarina Wiegman, and her focus on ensuring her players enjoy their football, on calmness, and risk taking. I was captivated by this description of Wiegman’s leadership approach, and by how powerful, and how transferable, the skills are that she develops in her team.

All sports have benefits that translate to study and work. Sports provide opportunities to develop the generic leadership and management skills of being treasurer, captain, or secretary. They teach the practical discipline of maintaining the gear and tackle and trim of sports equipment. They have stories which make you part of something bigger, part of history, as you participate in rules-based competitions passed down for generations – and their idioms express long-held values, the best of articulate stoicism, and respect for teammates and the opposition.

I often emerge from challenging situations at work and reflect that my ability to navigate that arena successfully owes more to my rowing than to my degree. I started rowing at university at 18, and I rowed competitively for 20 years, on Isis where the Thames is narrow, and on the Tideway where it’s wide, down the Danube and up the Clyde. I had a few unintentional swims and I painted my college’s crest and an exultant message under Donnington Bridge. I knew triumph and disaster, although I can’t really claim to have treated those two imposters just the same.

Sport for academia

Now I defend rowing and all sports as valuable activity alongside academic study for students, for happiness, and belonging, health and wellbeing, and also for all the experiences which translate into effectiveness at work and in leadership. “Train hard, win easily” and “no pain, no gain” are slogans on rowing T-shirts for a reason: preparation, resilience, flexibility, commitment and determination laid down over months of training are rewarded in racing, and are qualities that translate directly into work. Sports enable the development of a swathe of teamwork skills: how to motivate yourself and others; how to manage your own destructive reactions and behaviours and those of others; how to be gracious in victory and defeat.

Other more nebulous mental benefits have stayed with me: the memory of the sensation of perfect inner stillness when your consciousness reduces to the sound of the water running under the boat; the belief that it is possible to transform oneself through one’s efforts, and to overcome the limitations of the mind and the body. Sitting on the start of a race in the quiet before the starter gun combines poise and concentration in the moments before exerting the most power your body can generate, paced over a 2000m course; recollection of this physical feeling can be drawn on to inform resilience and calm at work.

I particularly support university sports for women, in terms of what it means to be able to claim and occupy physical space in the world, demonstrated so powerfully in images of female athletes like Megan Rapinoe holding the attention and admiration of a 34,000 strong crowd. Feeling and physically communicating a right to be at a table, a right to speak, and to assert or dissent, shouldn’t be a greater challenge for one gender, but in practice it often is. Sports are one way women can experience the sensation of physically owning a space.

Walking home through the park the other day, I stopped and watched children playing football and found myself cheering the goalie. Afterwards I thought about my reaction, and realised that it was a response to his evident composure under pressure, visible in his concentration, his patience, his judgement, and when it was time to spring forwards, his commitment. Characteristics displayed by an 11 year old in a Saturday morning soccer match, and the raw material for a future good colleague and a good leader.

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