Hard Work Pays Off

Lansing pitcher Josh Todd throws a pitch at a game this season at Cornell's Hoy Field

Turns out, the process of getting that dream job starts at six years old.

A recent study conducted by Kevin Kniffin, a behavioral science professor at Cornell University, shows that athletes who played youth and high school sports make better employees and have better career opportunities than those who didn't.

 Kniffin's report, titled “Sports at Work: Anticipated and Persistent Correlations of Participation in High School Athletics,” was co-written with Brian Wansink and Mitsuru Shimizu. The report details that in the short term, "people expect former student-athletes to display significantly more leadership, self-confidence, and self respect than those who were active outside of sports - such as being in the band or on the yearbook staff."

The study also found that, in the long run, "Men who participated in varsity-level high school sports on an average of 60 years earlier appeared to demonstrate higher levels of leadership and enjoyed high-status careers."

Kniffin said the study, which he started researching about two years ago, came about on "a hunch."

"It was also based on research that demonstrates that athletes who play in high school sports tend to earn higher salaries," said Kniffin. "Previous research hadn't acknowledged why that's the case. What this paper does is help shed light on why that relationship exists."

Kniffin believes that the reasoning behind these improved life skills are due to the lessons learned while being an athlete. His paper breaks it down through a series of hypotheses, which state that people with sports experience are expected to “demonstrate organizationally beneficial traits when compared to others,” which include “self-confidence and self-respect across decades” and “a correlation of prosocial and community-oriented behaviors.” 

The study begins by trying to determine if sports played as long as 50 years ago could still have an impact on an athlete's daily life. 

“The first part of the project, which would end up being Study 2, was using the survey of World War II vets,” Kniffin explained. “Study 2 looked at it and found significant relationships of more than five decades of people who played versus didn’t play. It found that people who played a sport demonstrated more self-confidence and leadership over 50 years later.”

The project also started by looking at the athletic backgrounds of members of Congress. This portion did not end up in the paper, but the data was included in a complimentary piece Kniffin wrote for the Huffington Post.

Kniffin said he was inspired to complete this project by seeing the success of Ithaca native and two-time Stanley Cup champion Dustin Brown.

“His story was one of the motivations for me,” he said. “We found that 43 percent of seniors played a high school sport. It's a common source of experience for people. Sports is a unique as well as a commonly shared experience … Without a doubt, I learned tons of important life long lessons, not just as a high school athlete, but in competitive youth sports, like Little League and Pop Warner.”

One thing that surprised him in his findings was the notion that adults who played sports were more likely to donate money to charity. The leadership and self-confidence attributes definitely make sense when you think about what it means to lead peers on a sports field, but the money donation part doesn’t immediately seem related.

“The explanation we have is that there are certain prosocial activities and traits that are prized within sports teams, and they seem to spill over into working relationships,” said Kniffin.

The idea that people who played sports were better off than those who did other extracurriculars is an interesting one as well. This study suggests that the most successful aren’t always the ones with the highest GPA. 

In fact, in the Huffington Post piece, Kniffin writes: “We entitled earlier versions of the article "Revenge of the Jocks" since the findings generally describe favorable outcomes for former student-athletes in contrast with the stereotype that jocks see their glory days fade at high school graduation while others age much better. The new research … does state plainly that people who earn a Varsity letter in high school do tend to enjoy advantages that extend beyond high school graduation day.”

“How much advantage?” he continues. “That's tough to say at this point but it is interesting to note that the one person most would consider closest to being a presidential candidate for 2016 reportedly played shortstop as a girl, knew how to hit a curveball, and, sadly for her, grew up as a Cubs fan.”

“A fun impact of that was several people have contacted me with anecdotes of their own where they interviewed for a job that had nothing to do with sports, but got the job because they had a high school record for swimming,” said Kniffin.

In his free time, Kniffin works as an “assistant assistant coach” for the Ithaca Youth Hockey Association, which is an affiliate of USA Hockey. He believes that the program is a great example of what youth sports can do for kids and wants to encourage parents that there is a return on the investment for supporting participation for children in competitive youth sports. 

“USA hockey is an extremely well thought out program to help engage students into sports,” said Kniffin. “While it's great to seek excellence through encouraging youth participation in sports, it's more generally the case that the participation should be intended to cultivate solid-citizen traits such as charitable behavior.”

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