Saturday 24 February 2018

'It's all to play for in sport business'

The link between team sports and later life career success is well documented. Our reporter talks to successful sports and career women including All-Star Galway camogie player Aislinn Connolly about their experience ­ - on and off the pitch

Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O’Leary
Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O’Leary
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Aislinn Connolly is a team player, both on the pitch and off it. The former All Star-winning Galway camogie player is now a brand development manager at Google, and "collaboration and inclusiveness" continues to be her raison d'être.

"I've always been in a team which is a collaborative environment so I always look for inclusion and everyone striving towards a common goal," she explains. "I say to my colleagues, 'We're all on the same team and we are in it together'."

Aislinn, daughter of hurling legend John Connolly, firmly believes that the skills she learned on the pitch translate to the world of business. She says her background in team sport has increased her levels of self-discipline, determination and confidence - essential requirements in any workplace.

Then there's the lingo. "I find myself saying things like, 'You're only as strong as your weakest link' or 'We all need to be pulling together'," she laughs.

"If we're ahead of target, I might say, 'We can't drop the ball on this one' or 'It's all to play for'."

The link between team sports and later-life career success has been well documented. Study after study has found that people who play team sports develop stronger leadership skills, demonstrate more confidence and work better in teams. One such study, by Ernst & Young, surveyed 821 high-level executives in the US and discovered that 90pc of the women played sport.

This makes sense to Yvonne Nolan, senior legal counsel at World Rugby, and former Ireland international rugby player. "Most of the characteristics seen in successful athletes - whether in team or individual sports - translate really well to the working world," she says. "Characteristics like self-motivation, resilience, a strong work ethic, the ability to accept and deliver critical analysis and so on are all very useful in a work setting."

Galway and Sarsfields camogie player Niamh McGrath, daughter of Galway hurler Michael 'Hopper' McGrath, has also discovered that a team sports background lends itself to the legal industry. She's a trainee solicitor with William Fry, where, like most corporate law firms, the trainees work in teams.

She says her sporting career has helped her become more "strong-willed, determined and single-minded" - characteristics that go hand in hand with the legal profession.

"Both law and team sports are competitive environments, especially in the commercial firms, amongst the trainees," she adds. "However, if you play a team sport, you are used to competitive environments, and working under pressure, so it's not alien to you."

Team sport players know the true meaning of teamwork. Sure, we all appropriate the 'able to work independently or as part of a team' CV cliché, but nothing compares to the all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit of a sporting squad.

Emily Glen, co-founder of the Fair Game podcast, says team sports and club environments help us negotiate group dynamics, while the shared experience leads to life-long friendships. "I'm in a triathlon club and an athletics club and in these club environments you make some of your closest friends through a shared suffering, and through the highs and lows of winning and losing," she says.

Team sports also give players invaluable experience of working alongside different personalities and turning intergroup competition into collaborative competition, which comes in handy when dealing with office politics.

"Team sports in particular hone an ability to work well with many different personality types and to learn how those people are motivated differently, learn differently and react differently to stress, success and failure," says Yvonne. "That ability is a powerful tool to bring into a work environment."

"You are used to dealing with all these different personalities and nobody is dominating," agrees Niamh. "So if there is an overpowering individual [in the workplace], you recognise that you are able to deal with it, and you overcome it.

"Law is a fast-paced environment," she continues. "But I'm used to the pressure and I'm used to being competitive and not giving up. The hours are long but I just keep at it. I don't panic and I persevere."

Emily has seen this perseverance time and time again in the sportswomen she has interviewed for her podcast. "When you fail in sports it's not the end of the world so you have a better grasp of that - and maybe that makes you a little bolder and braver," she says.

In other cases, the benefits are more tangible. For her own part, Aislinn, who contested two All-Ireland finals, says her team sports background proved to be an advantage when she first interviewed for her position in Google. "Nobody really wants a lone wolf because, in this day and age, it's all about relationships and relationship skills," she says.

"Having a team sport on your CV shows that you have a healthy work-life balance and you're not obsessed with just one thing.

"It also shows that you're able to deal with things - especially if you're competing at a high level. It shows that you don't get nervous because you are used to being in high-pressure situations. If you've taken the free kick in an All-Ireland final in front of 25,000 people, that's a big deal."

Yvonne agrees: "The ability to work in a team is often a key requirement for employers, and interviewers regularly rely on asking about examples of times where a person has demonstrated team work. Someone who plays team sports is demonstrating that skill in an authentic way on an ongoing basis and that should stand out for potential employers."

Some employers, including Rosemary Delaney, managing editor of Women Mean Business, specifically look for team sport experience when hiring.

"Playing a team sport (or sport in general) is something I look for in a CV - especially if I'm looking at recruiting a recent graduate," she says.

"It tells so much about a person's character - their commitment to others and to extracurricular activity; their stamina; a willingness to be part of a team and, therefore, ability to interact and support others.

Anne O'Leary of Vodafone is also impressed when she sees a team sport, or any evidence of a consistent fitness programme, on a CV.

"I fundamentally believe that my passion for sport and fitness has helped me in business," she says.

"Participation in sport develops motivational, team building and problem-solving skills and the ability to see projects through to completion. It equips people with the competitive spirit that's essential for success on both the pitch and in the workplace."

A background in team sports has other career advantages. Life-long friendships, established on sports teams, are powerful social networks from which career and business opportunities can develop.

Old Boys' Clubs often have their roots in team sports. However, because women's participation rates in team sports are lower, they are less likely to experience the same benefits.

"It's proven that parents encourage their sons to stay in sport more than they encourage their daughters," says Aislinn. "So I would encourage fathers, if you're bringing your sons to Croke Park, bring the girls too. It's going to benefit them as well.

"I look at my nieces and nephews now and I hope they can stay in sport for as long as they can because everything in sport translates to whatever their future career may be. The skills I learned through sports have helped me so much in the working environment."

Aislinn and her sister, nutritionist Sinead Bradbury, are hosting Body&Kind, a one-day health and fitness event for women, in the

Fitzgerald's Woodlands House Hotel in Adare on September 17. For more information, find Body&Kind on Facebook

* For more information on the GAA go to gaa.ie and see the "get involved section".

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