The Secret to Becoming a Powerful Woman: Play Team Sports

ForbesWoman

By Jenna Goudreau
When Beth Brooke, 52, was a young girl, she was diagnosed with a degenerative hip disease and told by doctors she may never walk again. Before going into surgery she made a promise to herself that she would walk -- no, she would run -- and hoped to become one of the best young athletes the world had seen. Indeed, she played several team sports at her Indiana high school, earned multiple MVP awards and managed to graduate as the class valedictorian.

In Pictures: Powerful Women Who Leveraged Sports in Business

Brooke went on to play Division 1 college basketball at Purdue University in her home state, and told Forbes that playing ball taught her discipline, focus and how to work as part of a team. Today she is the global vice chair of Public Policy at mega-accounting firm Ernst & Young and this year was named one of the world's 100 most powerful women.

Playing team sports in school not only helps women succeed in business, it sends them straight to the top. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi played cricket in her native India; Kraft Foods CEO Irene Rosenfeld played four varsity sports in high school and college basketball at Cornell University in New York; and SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro played lacrosse and field hockey at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. A sports background instilled in them valuable lessons for the boardroom, a mental and emotional toughness and the ability to speak a key business language obscured to those who don't "get" sports.

In 2002, a study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer revealed that a shocking 82% of women in executive-level jobs had played organized sports in middle, high or post-secondary school. Moreover, nearly half of women earning over $75,000 identified themselves as "athletic."

"We're now seeing the results and benefits of Title IX," says Sue Rodin, the founder of professional group Women in Sports and Events (WISE). The 1972 U.S. education amendment allowed girls the right to equal participation in all school activities, including sports programs. One of its early beneficiaries, Lynn Laverty Elsenhans played on Rice University's first women's intercollegiate basketball team in the mid '70's. She later became the first woman to run a major oil company and now serves as CEO of $40 billion-in-sales Sunoco .

"In team sports, you learn to share roles and work together towards a common goal, which is a tremendous lesson in the workplace," Rodin says. "It increases the possibility that you will be very disciplined and focused, knowing that other people are depending on you."

With her husband, tech superstar Weili Dai co-founded Marvell Technology Group in 1995 and grew it to annual revenues of $3.6 billion. In addition to making them billionaires, the company is now one of the world's leading producers of "fabless" semiconductors and works with clients like Apple , Samsung, Toshiba and Western Digital. Dai credits her five years playing semi-pro basketball in China, from ages nine to 14, for enabling her business success.

"The basketball court is the foundation for everything," Dai told me. She said it taught her to think quickly on her feet, to be a creative problem-solver, the power of a positive attitude and to feel confidence in herself and her work. Plus, it gave her unending energy-essential to launching a successful start-up. "This is what allowed me in the business world to work 24/7," she said.

The drive to win is arguably the most important predictor of business success. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who earned the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" on her high school basketball court, and newest HP CEO Meg Whitman, a Princeton squash and lacrosse player, likely leveraged their competitive sports backgrounds on the campaign trail-where there is no gray area between victory and defeat.

For those women who never played sports, Spencer advises that they at least learn one -- football, baseball or basketball -- so they aren't left out of water cooler talk. "Learn the rules and terms of the game, watch the leader and then chime in," says Spencer. "Knowing sports breaks down gender dynamics and may help women get to the next level."

In Pictures: Powerful Women Who Leveraged Sports in Business

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The Secret To Being A Power Woman: Play Team Sports

Ellen DeGeneres, TV host, played on her high school tennis team in Atlanta, Texas.
Ellen DeGeneres, TV host, played on her high school tennis team in Atlanta, Texas.
Sarah Palin, political commentator and former Alaska governor, played on her high school basketball team, earning the nickname
Sarah Palin, political commentator and former Alaska governor, played on her high school basketball team, earning the nickname