A Choice I Made as a Nine-Year-Old Determined My Career Path

Who would have known that a decision I made as a nine-year-old would have predicted the career I have chosen for the past 33 years.

When I was about nine-years-old I discovered that I liked swimming, and with my parents’ encouragement, I joined the local swim team. I think back then swimming was a more popular sport than it is now. We had so many kids on the team that there was the “A” team, the “B” team, and the “C” team. I was on the “C” team.

Despite my lack of ability at that time, I enjoyed the sport enough to stick with it, and after a few years of training, I became an above-average swimmer. I continued to swim competitively through all four years of college, highlighted by beating Villanova my senior year.

When I think back about what I liked about swimming, a big part of it was the routine (going back and forth, back and forth, just staring at the bottom of the pool), tracking my times and splits,  and learning how to train most effectively for the various events I swam.

Well, apparently those traits are what at least one of the Big 4 public accounting firms, KPMG, looks for in its recruits.

In a fascinating article in today’s Wall Street Journal, reporter Hilary Potkewitz notes that while some jobs have a reputation for drawing certain types of college athletes (football quarterbacks go on to sell insurance, lacrosse players work on Wall Street), recruiters say there are other links between sports and careers that are less well-known.

Water polo players, for instance, may thrive in tech marketing because both environments prize fast-moving teamwork. By contrast, wrestlers—used to competing as individuals rather than working with teammates—may make great solo-focused salesmen. And the precision required to succeed in sports like baseball and diving can help those athletes excel at accounting.

Yaniv Masjedi, Chief Marketing Officer of Nextiva, states that he loves hiring water polo players love hiring water polo players because of the collaborative nature of the sport, which is a key part of being a successful member of the marketing team.

Accounting firm KPMG hires 3,500 college students each year in the U.S., and although the firm doesn’t target or track specific sports in its hiring, James Powell, national partner in charge of campus recruiting, says that he’s noticed that baseball, softball, swimming and diving far outnumber other sports. “Public accounting is very regimented. It’s about keeping score and being precise, and in those sports, they’re used to that,” Mr. Powell said. Ballplayers, swimmers, and divers live by batting averages, field statistics, lap split-times or how to score a perfect 10, he added. “So when you say, ‘Here are the rules our clients have to live by,’ they get it.”

Jim Schleckser, CEO of Inc. CEO Project, an executive coaching firm in Potomac, Md., says an athlete’s suitability for a position depends on the type of sport and the requirements of the job. “If I want someone in an individual contributor role like sales, I’m going for someone in an individual sport, like wrestlers. They’re incredibly disciplined, they own the outcome, they’re not dependent on other people for success,” he said. “When hiring for a product development team, a customer service team, a small business unit, now I’m looking for people like volleyball players, soccer, even football.”

Given all these anecdotal relationships between sport and career choice, it’s perhaps no surprise that a company was created to help match athletes with specific career paths.

Game Plan, a firm that offers career services for athletes, has designed a personality assessment that scores eight traits—including camaraderie, structure, and competition—to help athletes evaluate potential career paths. Someone who scores high on camaraderie, for example, should consider jobs that are collaborative rather than solitary. People scoring high in structure—who thrived on having coaches set practice schedules and workout regimens—tend to fare better starting in highly organized training programs, often found at financial-services firms, for instance. Athletes who measure high on competition tend to prioritize winning over process or relationships, and do best in jobs where performance is always being measured, such as sales, fundraising, or coaching.

I clearly remember  a conversation I had over 20 years ago with a partner from one of the large accounting firms (the Big 5 back then) who told me that he specifically went out of his way to recruit athletes, since he thought the discipline required to balance school work and athletics would be a valuable trait at his firm.

It looks like he may have been ahead of his time, and over the years, such an approach has simply become a bit more refined.

I think this gives parents something to think about – the sport you encourage your child to participate in could have long -term career implications. Choose wisely.

And in my opinion, you can never go wrong with swimming.

*image from the Duncan Banner