High School Sports: The Secret to Better Health and Greater Success?

What makes some people better leaders at work and in their communities? Some might say it's a matter of personality -- that some people "have it," and others do not. 

But there's also the argument that leaders are made, not born. If that's the case, there are plenty of people who would like to know how to shape themselves, or their children, into leaders. And for these people, answers can be found in some very surprising places. 

The importance of high school sports, as demonstrated by WWII veterans
Did you know that former high school athletes get paid more than non-athletes? While a fair amount is known about the perceptions people have about former high school athletes, not a lot is known about why they have them. So, using an amazingly detailed survey of World War II veterans, researchers Kevin M. Kniffin, Brian Wansink, and Mitsuru Shimizu analyzed the respondents' self-reported answers about confidence, leadership roles, and altruistic behaviors. 

While using World War II veterans means the survey only included men, and while a lot has perhaps changed in why and how people play sports, this population is actually an amazing source of information. After all, you can pretty much assume that all the people surveyed had at least a baseline level of fitness at graduation, and they all went through rigorous military training and the singular experience of war.

So what did they learn? Sixty years later, the former high school athletes donate more time and money to charity, and score significantly higher on measures of leadership, confidence, and self-respect. They were also more likely to have careers in upper management. 

As it happens, in another study, Wansink and a collaborator found that the former athletes are also much more likely to exercise regularly as retirees. In fact, being a varsity athlete in high school was the "single strongest predictor of later-life physical activity" out of a number of possible variables. Even a self-assessment of personality wasn't predictive of whether someone would work out.

Where does this come from? 
One could argue that the causality of sports could go either way. Maybe high school athletics helps people build skills like leadership and a willingness to exercise regularly. Or maybe people who are naturally athletic leaders are more likely to play sports. Or maybe people who could participate in high school sports had other pluses in their columns, like a certain type of family background.

It's just really hard to say and, unfortunately, the limitations of these types of surveys is that you can't establish causality. 

But for those of us who think that our experiences help to shape us, there's a potentially huge lesson to learn here. Maybe, just maybe, the lessons of high school athletics go further than hard work and sportsmanship. Maybe they can help people to become stronger and better over the long run.  

Even if there's only a small chance that one can develop these qualities as a result of being on a sports team in high school, it's an incredible piece of food for thought. And you can be sure I'll be badgering my kid about it one day.

To learn more, take a look at "Sports at Work: Anticipated and Persistent Correlates of Participation in High School Athletics", by Kevin M. Kniffin, Brian Wansink, and Mitsuru Shimizu, and "Fit in 50 years: Participation in High School Sports Best Predicts One's Physical Activity After Age 70", by Simone Dohle and Brian Wansink. 

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