High School Sports Participation Benefits Last A Lifetime

By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert


Parents already know that getting their kids involved in youth sports can have immediate benefits like better fitness and sharper brains to help them in school. Lessons on teamwork, leadership and dealing with pressure can also help student-athletes as they make their way through high school and college. But, do those advantages fade over time? Does any of it stick with us into our long-term career? Economics researchers at Cornell University took a retrospective biographical trip with almost one thousand World War II veterans to find out if their high school activities affected their success in later life.

Typically, past research has tried to tie pure academic achievement to future career performance. But there wasn’t always a clean correlation between a high GPA and future income or upper management levels. Kevin M. Kniffin, postdoctoral research associate at Cornell's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, wondered if other high school activities, like sports, provided the type of life lessons that would build a solid foundation for future goals.

Using the 2000 University of Illinois Veterans Survey of 931 World War II vets, Kniffin and his team was able to peruse the responses of the 16-page questionnaire covering a wide swath of topics, including high school activities, coupon usage, career paths, car purchasing histories and investment strategies, to name just a few. At the time of the survey, the vets were between the ages of 73 and 91, with most having graduated from high school at least 60 years ago. With such a long perspective, certain activities in their teens could be mapped to future life achievements and behaviors.

In a separate survey, Kniffin asked 66 adults what behaviors they would expect to see from people who participated in different activities, either sports-related or non-sports-related, like band, drama or yearbook staff.  Specifically, would they expect to notice more self-confidence, leadership, time management, volunteerism and charitable donations from people with a sports background?

As expected, Kniffin found that society has higher expectations of former athletes, with those surveyed responding that they assume ex-jocks would score higher later in life for all of these character traits.

As for the eventual life paths of the vets, the study found that 43% reported past participation on a varsity high school sports team, 44% reported volunteering, 13% reported having a career in upper management and 9% reported having a career in the trades. Of those that were athletes, their scores for leadership, self-respect and self-confidence were much higher than the non-athletes. In addition, significantly more ex-athletes reported positions in upper management.

In addition, their social participation and charitable giving were much higher than their non-athlete peers.

The research has been published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies.

"Participation in competitive youth sports 'spills over' to occupationally advantageous traits that persist across a person's life," said Kniffen. "In our study of late-career workers, those who earned a varsity letter more than 50 years ago do demonstrate these characteristics more than others—plus, they donate time and money more frequently than others and possessed great prosocial behavior in their 70s, 80s and 90s.”

Kniffen suggested that hiring managers continue to ask job applicants about their athletic background as this seems to contribute to a more well-rounded, competitive individual ready for future career challenges.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Oct 21 2016

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