The athlete as leader
What is it about sport that can help an athlete become a leader – even beyond their own sport, or indeed outside it? There are some fairly obvious aspects to sporting success that will help in any leadership role.
Athletes must be determined, they need to understand and practise teamwork, they understand what their followers need, their chosen sport is likely to have layers of complexity and strategy, and they are certainly required to deal with pressure.*
Other (and related) skills are decision making – often within tight timeframes, and coming up with winning strategies.**
Not surprisingly, many athletes opt for a role in sports administration in their “retirement”. A brief survey of the mostly US-based athletes with later non-performance careers is heavily weighted in this direction. After all, they have ready-made contacts, they have established profiles, they have followers, and they can leverage the skills and knowledge acquired in sport to bring a deep understanding to their roles.
One such athlete on the world stage, Sebastian Coe (Lord Coe), was an Olympic gold-medallist in the 1500 metres and setting a string of records in the 1970s and 1980s. He became a member of the British Parliament in 1992, where he remained until 1997, and became a ‘Life Peer’ in 2000. He headed his country’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics and chaired the Games Organising Committee. In 2012 he undertook a new role at his old university on its council, and in the same year chaired the British Olympic Association. This shows a consistent pattern for such an elite athlete, and no doubt the sporting world in Britain especially benefited.
Closer to home, and indicative of traits in sports that can be much admired, the second man to break the 4-minute ‘mile’, John Landy, maintained a rivalry with Roger Bannister of Britain in the 1950s. He became especially famous for turning back in a race to help a fellow-runner, Ron Clarke, then going on to win the race himself ( see link for archival footage https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozZyfM5l9ws ) – this was widely seen as a demonstration of his strong character, but it was also a team action. He was a company manager, an admired public speaker, a naturalist, and for five years Governor of Victoria, a largely ceremonial role but one also with crucial symbolic leadership requirements.
Dawn Fraser, a swimmer, Kirstie Marshall, an aerial skier, and Nova Peris, a hockey player and sprinter, all entered Parliament at state or federal level. All women with diverse characters, backgrounds, interests and sports, they were able to make an effective transition to the quite different pace of parliamentary life, and to demonstrate in that forum the traits of leadership and tenacity that served them well in sport. All had been Olympic medallists, and were able to translate the discipline that had required to community roles.
Another who made the transition in a remarkable way is Imran Khan, captain of the Pakistan cricket team, and later his country’s Prime Minister (a role he still holds). Before he entered politics he embarked on a career in philanthropy, using his talents and his recognition to raise funds for hospitals.
The list could go on for some time. These were not people without flaws – indeed, their characters and missteps seemed rather to make them more human but not to detract from their achievements. All of them could have chosen to stay in some other, more restful form of post-sport life, but the combination of skills they possessed came to fit them for more interesting roles in the community. They remained in public perception the famous athletes they had been, but they also became significant contributors in public life.
Life after sport, then, can be very much valued, especially when it reflects the sports experience.