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Sports at Work: Anticipated and Persistent Correlates of Participation

Kniffin, Kevin, Brian Wansink, and Mitsuru Shimizu (2014). Sports at Work: Anticipated and Persistent Correlates of Participation in High School Athletics. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 1-14. doi: 10.1177/1548051814538099. 

Employers utilize various strategies in their respective recruiting and hiring processes. One method that is becoming increasingly common is to collect and analyze biographical data. “Biodata” covers a broad spectrum of topics from personality tests to past work and non-work experiences. In this study, we took a closer look at biodata, focusing on the more specific, and less studied topic: participation in high school sports.A separate, yet related group of research has examined both sports teams and military groups as two entities with many parallels to the organization and function of the workplace. These studies explore group dynamics such as the value of team membership in building moral. The understudied topic of biodata warrants more attention because (1) people are less likely to misreport verifiable activities such as involvement with sports teams that have archived team rosters, and (2) a large percentage of high school students. 43% of high school seniors, report some involvement in competitive sports.

This study draws from a wide variety of disciplines to examine the specific relationship between participating in competitive youth sports and transferable workplace skills and performance. This was done through two complementary studies, the first focusing on the short term and the second exploring the long term.

In the short-term study, we asked participants to rank their agreement with situations pertaining to four conditions: 1) someone who played varsity basketball in high school, 2) someone who participated on the varsity cross-country team, 3) someone in the high school band, and 4) someone in the yearbook club. For each condition, participants were asked to rank their perception of the described person’s ability level in terms of leadership, self-confidence, time management skills, self-respect, volunteerism, and charitable behavior. The results supported our hypothesis that people with sports experience are perceived to display higher levels of leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect. However, raters expect former student athletes to be less likely to volunteer or be charitable.

In the second, long-term study, we analyzed previously unexamined variables from the 2000 University of Illinois Veteran’s Survey, which included responses from 931 World War II veterans. The survey included a measure of whether respondents played high school sports 55 or more years prior to their participation in the study. The survey also assessed demographic traits, pro-social behavior, leadership abilities, self-confidence, self-respect, and career outcomes. The results showed that former athletes achieved more senior leadership positions and career status, as well as exhibiting more pro-social behavior.

The results from both studies validate previously completed research on the effectiveness and accuracy of biodata for employer use in the hiring process, while contributing research illustrating that sports participation can facilitate positive development and ultimately lead to a successful career.