Sold: Why Former Athletes Really Make the Best Employees

By: Alex Pappas

Working in an industry like advertising connects you with a diverse group of people from all sorts of backgrounds and talents.  Advertising is all about one thing: selling. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to your direct supervisor about growing your current role, asking your director for a raise, presenting a new marketing strategy to a client, or trying to sell a product to your target audience; you’re always going to be selling your ideas to someone.

Having worked in the advertising industry for a few years, I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of the smartest and best sellers in the industry.  In my experience, the one thing that elevates someone from good to great is their ability to clearly and concisely communicate ideas.  It sounds so simple, but it is typically a lot more difficult than you might think.  When you apply for a job, it is usually just a bullet point on the description, nothing more.  However, what never ceases to amaze me is how much daily impact this skill has on your life and the difference it can make in your personal and professional growth.  It can mean the difference between delivering a more effective assignment on time, selling a client on a pitch, and achieving your career goals.  More often than not, the individuals with the best communication skills tend to have something shared in common – they were athletes.   

Whether it’s on the court, field, or in the pool, athletes know good communication is the lynchpin of any successful team.  It helps build trust and accountability amongst teammates and coaches.  The same goes for teams in the workplace.  Being a good communicator goes beyond giving direction or presenting ideas, but also has to do with their ability to listen and translate direction into actionable tasks.  

If your boss briefs you on an assignment, can you listen, take notes, and ask relevant questions which will help achieve the desired end goal?  To an athlete, this is very similar to the type of preparation they practice throughout their careers.  If a coach asks you what your responsibility is for a specific play and how it impacts the overall scheme, you have to articulate and demonstrate your understanding of the concepts.  You must speak confidently and clearly.  You sell the coaches and your teammates on the fact that you are accountable and dependable.  

This rings true in the business world as well.  By the time athletes get to the workplace, these interactions have already become second nature for them.  Athletes know that a “miscommunication” on the field can make the difference between a touchdown or a turnover.  Advancing on or going home.  Victory or defeat.

Communication in business is not limited to one-on-one verbal interactions.  It takes many forms, from written to oral to physical presentations.  Sometimes, you are called on to perform at a high level in high-pressure situations in front of very important decision-makers.  Sometimes millions of dollars, peoples’ jobs (including yours), and even the future of your company are on the line.  Often, you have to carefully craft an email or memo to your peers, boss, or clients that clearly articulates direction and ideas.   

Almost everything an athlete does throughout their playing career prepares them for these situations they will find themselves in at their jobs.  Presenting to a group, large or small, takes confidence and the ability to instill necessary trust in your audience to buy what you’re selling them.  Athletes know how to get up in front of crowds and perform at a high level in high-pressure situations.   It’s easy to see this experience translated into a stature and poise that athletes bring to these settings both physically and mentally.  

Being articulate doesn’t necessarily mean being long-winded; quite the opposite. For example, take communication during game situations.  This communication is usually done during quick thirty-second timeouts and breaks.   Athletes and coaches don’t always have time to spell out long instructions, but still need to quickly and effectively get their point across.  Understanding how to express instruction is key to being successful in these situations.  

When writing emails or even crafting presentations, brevity is king, and these short breaks in sports are an excellent example of the power of brevity.  People get hundreds and sometimes thousands of emails and messages every day and don’t have the time to sift through a thousand words when the idea could have been conveyed in less than a hundred.  In an age where engagement can be limited to 140 characters, a person’s ability to sit through an hour-long presentation with a hundred slides is limited.  Trust me: people appreciate “less is more”.  A carefully crafted message could make the difference between someone understanding and buying your idea and them glossing over it and moving on to something else.   An athlete’s ability to clearly and concisely express their thoughts is key to successfully selling people on ideas.  

Selling is not unique to any one industry.  It is something that you find yourself doing more often than not both personally and professionally.  When employers consider candidates for positions, a lot of (often true) platitudes come to mind when discussing the benefits of hiring a former athlete: phrases like “team player”, “overcomes adversity”, and “motivated” may come to mind.  There’s no doubt a former athlete can add value.  But what really sells me on what makes athletes the best employees comes down to perhaps their most underrated skill of all.  A skill that will impact nearly every aspect of their professional lives and the success of the company they work for: clear, effective communication.    


Alex Pappas currently works on the Digital Strategy team at the full-service advertising agency Deutsch LA in Playa Vista, CA.  In addition to digital strategy, he has focused on branding, social strategy and business development throughout his professional career.  Alex graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a Bachelors degree in Business Marketing where he also played DI collegiate rugby for three seasons.  You can connect with Alex on LinkedIn