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Why you should hire athletes

Forbes Magazine proclaimed this week that you should fill your company with athletes.

Writes David Williams,
“At our company, we work to fill our roster with “athletes.” I don’t mean this necessarily in the physical sense, although it turns out that quite a few of our members are literal athletes – we have a national-class triathlete, I have a personal interest in competitive and recreational bodybuilding, and there are multiple marathoners, bikers, soccer, and basketball players, CrossFit enthusiasts, etc. on staff. …. But when I advise people to seek and hire athletes, what I am really referring to is the athlete traits (akin to leadership traits) that make any individual an exceptional hire.”

Williams then goes on to list the traits that athletes have that make them great to work with. They have drive, determination, a sense of balance, and also, of course, an ability to work in teams.

I like the message and Williams’s piece made me smile. But I’ve got some ambivalence about the message I thought I’d share here. While.I agree that athletes bring a whole set of skills to the workplace and that we ought to value them, I have two worries.

First, these skills, such as balancing individual achievement with team work, can come from other areas of life as well.

Lots of the lessons my athletic son has learned through team sports, my daughter has learned from school band and through singing in choirs, and my other son has learned through musical theatre. Team work matters. Showing up matters. Doing your best matters. Helping others matters.

Second, I worry a lot about who gets seen as athletic. If athletic is code for “looking fit” you run the risk of missing people.

But it’s a step in the right direction to recognize that skills we acquire through sports training carry over. Often in university it’s my fellow campus athletes I’ve bonded with in meetings over the need to get away from the table, get up and stretch and even get out for a run.

I like the balance that comes from recognizing the importance of things we do outside work rather than thinking that those of us with time to run, bike, swim, row, lift etc clearly aren’t taking with seriously enough.

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3 thoughts on “Why you should hire athletes

  1. Sam, I’m very unsure that David Williams and you are on the same page at all. I admit that I don’t know the first thing about him personally, but my fear is that his approval of athletic talent is actually a disguise for over-the-top machoism, and disapproval (with the corporate public face), and hatred, scorn and making fun of (with the behind-the-scenes true face) of everything and everyone from overweight people, gay people, scholarly intellectual people, and anything and everyone else who are different in some or really any way. You have said that you are a late bloomer when it comes to athletic pursuits. Would David have been right to hire another philosopher other than you – one who was more athletic – if it were he that was hiring professors when and where you were first hired? What if similar considerations were given to those professors who would get tenure? I think you see where I am going. My first reaction is always to be afraid of people like David Williams. But tell me – is he actually a strong supporter of women’s rights, gay rights, affirmative action, etc.? It could be that my fears are misplaced.

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  2. You kind of mentioned this in your #2, but I’d be really worried about a person voicing such a preference discriminating against disabled people in their hiring practices. We* already face so much discrimination because people think we won’t be able to do the job (even when we can do it without accommodations) or that we’re more expensive than other employees, or we’re a lawsuit waiting to happen; I’d be afraid that this guy would also think, “oh, she’s in a wheelchair, she can’t be an athlete,” and thus conclude that my hypothetical job candidate wouldn’t have the same leadership skills or team-player mentality as a random able-bodied jock type** with identical qualifications.

    *I’m not physically disabled, so I don’t experience the same kind of discrimination as someone who is, but there’s also discrimination against people with mental illnesses and people with developmental disabilities too.

    **Who, somewhat ironically, could be me.

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    1. Agree completely. I thought of that particular case in both of my worries. First that some people aren’t seen as athletic even though they might be. Second that there are other ways to develop these same traits. I think it’s a real issue but I still like the idea of valuing the whole person rather than just the work self.

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