Myth of the Jock: The Edge of Student Athletes

I’ve been in charge of recruiting people at my company recently and one of the common denominators I look for in an ideal recruit is their extracurricular activities during high school and/or college, especially team sports. The myth of the dumb jock has been prevalent for many decades, but I believe student-athletes are some of the most well-rounded, intelligent people you could have in your company.

If you’ve never participated in team sports, you might assume that the locker room is just full of meatheads with too much testosterone. However, many team sports–as well as solo-based sports like tennis, kendo, and boxing–are quite cerebral. Athletics is not just about knowing how to use the body and relying on raw talent, but intelligently harmonizing the mind and the body. Here is what the NCAA say about student-athletes:

Graduation rates for student-athletes as a group are higher than those of their peers in the general student body. Two-thirds of former student-athletes agree that playing an NCAA sport helped prepare them for life after graduation. In addition to practicing, competing and studying, student-athletes give back to their communities through volunteer service and national charity partnerships.

For example, in football (or “handegg” as my non-American peers like to call it) there are a lot of strategic intelligence involved. Those who have played football in high school or college know that practice does not just involve hitting the weight room and running mind-numbing drills. As a player–whether you’re the quarterback or lineman–you spend countless hours reviewing videos of past games. This is to familiarize yourself with your opponent’s weaknesses and strengths; their strategies; your own weaknesses and strengths as a team, and how well each player matches up with their counterparts.

I call this “predatory intelligence” because, like a hunter or soldier, you analyze your opponents’ habits and any patterns in their overall strategy. This type of intelligence can be applied to everything from the military to marketing.

In basketball, spatial intelligence is added to predatory intelligence, because the best “Floor Generals” on the team are the ones who have an acute awareness of the court. Take Magic Johnson. He was a supremely brilliant basketball player, because he could not only score in various ways, but also had great decision-making skills when passing the ball or creating situations against the defense to allow his teammates to make a play. Think of it as real-life chess but played at lightning speed. You have to be able to think fast and processes a dozen things at once: call plays (if you’re the point guard), set up the play, and then adapt quickly to the defense if your play is broken up, among other factors.

We get so accustomed to watching NBA players maneuver effortlessly on the court that the general public forget the amount of talent and intelligence you must have to perform at a peak level.

The other factor that gives student-athletes an edge over other recruits is that they’re used to having a disciplined regimen:

1. Go to your classes

2. Go to practice (weight room, run drills, review tape, have meetings with the coaching staff)

3. Study for upcoming tests and do homework/projects

4. Sleep early to get ready for another long day

If you can do this 5-6 days per week for even a whole semester, then much respect to you. I know people who are 100% fully focused on just academics and still struggle.

While cynics will say that athletes are specifically given easy classes to take and are given leniency with grading/tests, this is also a myth that was perpetuated by cases of corrupt athletics departments at certain universities (which I won’t name). But you shouldn’t let a few rotten apples ruin the whole bunch as most universities have strict academic policies for student-athletes.

Another reason why I like recruiting student-athletes is their ability to work well in a collaborative environment whilst still performing their individual roles at the same high level. In team sports, you not only have to constantly improve your individual skill sets and knowledge, but you also have to optimize how your team works as a unit.

This is not to say that all student-athletes will make great additions to your company, or that non-athletes are inept, but I think we should celebrate the many different talents we have coming out of school rather than relying on stereotypes to cloud our judgment. Here is a final word from Stanford graduate and Super Bowl champion, Richard Sherman, about the life of a student-athlete.