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Researchers have a theory to explain why high school athletes go on to be successful in life

Playing high school sports doesn’t just boost your chances of teenage popularity.

In a twist that is either horrifying or reassuring, depending on your past, people who played sports in high school may actually go on to have more professional success.

For years, economists have shown that former student athletes go onto earn significantly more than their non-sports-playing peers — between 5% and 15% more, according to research cited by the Atlantic.

Now, a new study, published this month in the “Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies,” suggests a potential explanation for those higher salaries: one-time athletes are seen as having more self-confidence, more self-respect, and better leadership skills than people who pursued other hobbies — yearbook and band, in the case of the study.

“People seem to activate a certain set of expectations with people who’ve played high school sports,” lead researcher Kevin Kniffin, a professor at Cornell University, tells Business Insider. And notably, those expectations seem to hold whether or not the people doing the evaluations were once athletes themselves.
“We’re not reporting that likes are attracting likes,” Kniffin explains. It’s everybody.

Moreover, Kniffin’s research suggests that former athletes seem to live up to those perceptions. Looking at longitudinal data from World War II veterans — men in their 70s, 80s, and 90s at the time of the survey — it appeared that people who played sports did go on to have more high-status careers. Fifty five years after high school, they earned more than non-athletes, and they were more likely to assume positions in upper management.

And — contrary to certain stereotypes — the former student-athletes also gave more money to charity and spent more time volunteering than people who hadn’t played sports.

So does that mean secret to lifetime achievement is four years of high school basketball and a side of track? Maybe — but maybe not. “Our study really just scratched the surface,” says Kniffin. Having played high school sports correlates with future success, but whether your sophomore volleyball career is the reason you make partner has yet to be determined.

High school athleticsReutersPeople see former athletes as having more self-confidence, more self-respect, and better leadership skills.

As the paper notes, it’s possible that “participation in youth sports might function as a marker for other background traits such as family stability or general mental ability.”

If you played a sport in high school, that means you went to a school that had athletic options, that your family responsibilities left you time to take advantage of them, that you’re reasonably athletic (or willing to play anyway), and that you felt like you’d be reasonably welcome to participate — all factors that could help explain your future success. Sports come with cultural caché, and that could account for the self-confidence boost, too.

Kniffin also points out that while certain qualities — leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect — are associated specifically with athletics, it’s likely that future studies could show “important traits associated with other activities — the discipline that comes along with learning a musical instrument, for example.”

The takeaway here, Kniffin stresses, is not that we all have to play high school sports, force our children to play high school sports, and spend the rest of our lives regretting it if we did not play high school sports.

(Let us take this moment to point out, too, that while a whole bunch of business leaders are one-time athletes, a whole lot aren’t. Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are known for many things, but their collective athletic prowess is not one of them.)

Still, Kniffin suggests that there’s something unique about athletics — and while there’s more research to be done to investigate a causal relationship between sports and success, he has some theories that could potentially explain the link. “Being part of a team, working intensively with teammates, managing a common resource, and interacting closely with a coach where there’s a common goal” are all potential factors, he says.

Kniffin didn’t look at how different types of sports affect success, but that’s his next project. If crew is the ultimate team sport, then are one-time rowers even better leaders than former track stars?

There’s a lot we still don’t know. But one thing seems clear: For better or worse, what happens in high school doesn’t stay in high school.

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