Recent study shows participation in youth athletics has significant long-term benefits



For Wesley Middleton, men’s varsity basketball team member and junior, athletics have always been a valuable part of his life.
Since July 2014, Middleton has worked as a cashier at OfficeMax and said when interviewing for the job, he proudly mentioned his participation in athletics.
“I mentioned it as a way to showcase my ability to work in a team, to work together, as well as to showcase leadership and responsibility,” Middleton said.
Middleton’s experiences are consistent with the findings of a 2014 study conducted by Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, along with Kevin Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu, Cornell University post-doctoral researchers. Through research with current workers and retirees, they found that participation in competitive youth athletics develops occupationally advantageous traits. They also concluded that even on an average of 60 years later, former athletes demonstrate higher levels of leadership and enjoyed higher-status careers.
Kniffin grew up playing sports in Philadelphia, and said via email that this was partly what inspired him to research this topic.
“It always seemed like, and still does, that there are important lifelong lessons that are learned by playing sports as a kid,” Kniffin said.
Although similar experiments have been conducted before, the results that Kniffin, Wansink and Shimizu found illustrate the effects in a different way.
“Previous research has shown positive income effects for people who played youth sports, but our study sheds light on the reasons why that pattern holds, since presumably the personality traits help to explain the higher incomes,” Kniffin said, mentioning leadership, self-confidence and self-respect to be the main personality traits they found to contribute to the success of former athletes.
In accordance with Kniffin’s findings, John Hebert, history teacher and assistant football coach, said his younger years were filled with athletics. Hebert said those experiences influenced and bolstered his later educational and occupational life.


“Because I was always playing a sport, I was always on a team and it just became natural. Being a part of a team, understanding the role that you have and coming together for a common cause are really important traits for anyone going forward,” Hebert said.
In addition to the skills he learned, Hebert said his participation in athletics influenced his choice of college, because the only schools he considered were the ones that offered him a scholarship for football. He ultimately chose to play football for Purdue University, and said he was satisfied with his decision.
“I never had anything against Purdue, but I just never really considered going there without the football aspect. But as it turned out, it was really great for me,” Hebert said.
Once his days of competitive athletics were over, Hebert said he believes his earlier athletic participation still provided him an advantage later in life.
“I think you need to be focused on teaching first, but it certainly helps to be able to help with the marching band, the swim program, or whatever,” Hebert said. “If you’re qualified as a good teacher, I think having those other things to offer really helps.”
Alison Smith, assistant director of the Indiana University Arts and Sciences Career Services Center, who is also the liaison to the university’s athletics department, said the findings of Kniffin’s study are consistent with the feedback she hears from employers as well.
“In my discussions with employers who are interested in hiring students, they often tell me that student athletes just possess some traits that are really hard to teach,” Smith said, citing a strong work ethic, dedication, competitiveness and strong teamwork skills as some of these traits.
“Other students can definitely possess these, but student athletes have this innate nature of that just by basis of them being student athletes and competing in their sport,” Smith said. “It’s definitely a very realistic thing that employers are constantly telling us, and they’re constantly looking to network with student athletes because they know these intangibles that they can’t teach oftentimes don’t come with other applicants in the pool.”
In addition to being possibly more appealing to employers, Smith said the student-athletes she works with display other characteristics that allow them to be successful.
“I think that they do a really good job of wanting to fully understand the task at hand, so they ask a lot of questions,” Smith said. “Which I think might be trained in them, like making sure that they’re doing the technique of the sport in the right. Like when we’re working on how to do a pitch to an employer, they’re really working to make sure they’ve got it as polished as possible and they really want to practice it over and over and over again. Sometimes other students will say ‘Yeah, I think I got it. Thank you!’ but student athletes want to keep coming back and asking, ‘How does this sound? Is this what you’re looking for? Would that be appealing to an employer?’ So I think that that continued desire to practice and perfect something also is often times not something I see with all of my students that I interact with.”
Smith also said she sees the benefits of athletics transfer into students’ other activities. She said she believes the skills learned in athletics are extremely valuable and transferrable.
“Sometimes people who haven’t been a part of something bigger, like an athletic team, they don’t have that same feeling towards things,” Smith said. “But because athletes have been part of a team, and they have that drive, and want to be the best that they can be to win, that really comes through in the things that they try to do outside of the field or court.”
Although he is a long time away from getting a full-time job, Middleton said that he believes the skills he has learned from participation in basketball serve him well every day, and will continue to do so as he moves on to other stages in his life.
“Teamwork is the most important thing I have learned, because you’re not always going to get your way, and you’ve got to work for the benefit of the team to accomplish your goals,” Middleton said. “Time management is also huge, because you have to manage your time well so that you don’t fall behind in your schoolwork or in your other activities. I just think you learn a lot of valuable life lessons from playing sports.”