I recently attended a virtual panel presentation in Minneapolis about women in sports that highlighted the important benefits of participation. One of the panelists cited a study that discovered nearly 90% of women in C-suite positions have a sports background. The moderator, Mary Jo Kane, a retired professor in the School of Kinesiology and the former director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport, both at the University of Minnesota, asked the four panelists what role sports play in developing this executive skill set.

Everyone mentioned mental toughness and resilience, which translate to all aspects of life, especially business.

Mental toughness is persevering through difficult circumstances, conditioning your mind to think confidently and being able to overcome frustration. Athletes must be in tiptop physical shape, but if they don’t prepare themselves mentally, they will never become champions.

Mental toughness needs to be exercised to grow and develop. Get out of your comfort zone by taking on new tasks, and then seek out other duties to test your determination.

As for resilience, nearly all the successful people I know have dealt with defeat, slumps, failures, change and adversities of every nature. The reason they are successful despite all that is they had the confidence and courage to face those setbacks and find a way to overcome them.

Remember, you can’t live life with an eraser. You can’t anticipate every possible problem, no matter how hard you try. But you can resolve to face challenges as they arise.

The panelists also discussed teamwork, goal-setting, hard work and the importance of having mentors.

“Sports teach you about wins, losses and failures,” said Pam Borton, CEO of PBP Consulting Group and former head coach of the women’s basketball teams at the University of Minnesota and the University of Vermont. “As a coach, you have to build highly skilled teams. You learn how to hire, fire and recruit. All these skills are transferrable to business. As leaders, you learn how to help people and enhance people skills.”

Laura Day, executive vice president and chief business officer of the Minnesota Twins, said she learned to “surround herself with champions — both men and women. You also need to be comfortable with change. Sports unlock a lot of things.” She mentioned that she is curious by nature and has an insatiable desire to learn.

Day added: “Culture is important because you can thrive in an organization that shares your values. It’s tough to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Lisa Lissimore, associate director of the Minnesota State High School League, said you learn a lot from winning and losing. Sports gave her the confidence she needed because she had a complex about being tall and skinny growing up. Sports also allowed her to work with a variety of people.

Julie Manning, executive associate director of Gophers Athletics at the University of Minnesota, said she learned grit from competing in sports. “You stay in there when you get knocked down. You have to perform under pressure with calmness. There is always a sense of urgency, but you must remain calm.

“Sports teach you to solve problems. For example, if you have a bad tee shot on the golf course, you have to think about how to get out of that situation. Sports also builds consensus. You learn to strive to get better every day,” Manning added

Truly, it’s mind over matter.

Mackay’s Moral: Training for sports is good training for business and life.


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.