Recruitment: A Career with Similarities for an Athlete…

As we know, many careers are that are forged from strong academic, and specialist professional backgrounds. If we think, with some of the most apparent, careers being in law, healthcare, engineering and finance and finance could be categorised.. But interestingly, as local and global markets come closer together, many professions industries (like sales, marketing, recruitment, retail, communications and more) are being led by top performers who come from a variety of academic, social and professional backgrounds, with recruitment being right at the forefront. And this industry is seeing more and more of these top performers coming from an elite/high performing athletic background. So why is this…?

Undoubtedly one of the key features is the similarities in behaviours needed to be successful in both recruitment and professional/elite level sport. If we look closely at some of the key values, skills and behaviours behind successful recruiters, we can align these with an athlete’s make-up and DNA.

A successful career in sport, is as much down to mentality, personal values and dedication as it is technical ability. Many athletes who reach an elite level, have a proven ability to learn and improve, overcome challenge, make sacrifices that many others are not willing to make, understand a results driven environment and most importantly, they compete to win. What you may or may not realize, is a lot of the same can be said for top performing recruiters.

Agency recruitment is a very demanding, results driven and challenging career, but for top performers, it is very, very lucrative. So let’s look at the key comparisons between both…


Recruitment is based on performance, and can come with a cut throat mentality. You are always fighting against competitors, in high competition markets, with businesses and individuals willing to make sacrifices to bring results. Unlike many other professions, take your foot off the gas for a second, and your competition will take advantage. This can breed an unpredictable environment, which many academic or commercial professionals will find difficult to compete and survive in.

The foundation of sport at any level is competition. At elite level, athletes thrive under the pressure of true competition. They seek the challenge, and see opposition as an opportunity. Athletes who compete at a high level, day in day out, make physical, social and emotional sacrifices all for one end goal, to win. An athlete’s make-up and mind-set is built on a willingness to win, a desire to outperform and do what it takes to succeed. More and more organisations, especially within recruitment, are actively looking for this winning mentality, which no amount of technical, on the job training can teach. Winning is a mentality and a habit built over time.

Recruitment is based on merit. With a highly lucrative commission-based structure, when you win, your business wins, and ultimately the rewards financially can be endless, at any age or level of experience.

Overcoming Failure

Becoming a successful recruiter takes time, a lot of hard work, dedication and it success doesn’t come straight away, similar to forging an athletic career. The nature of agency recruitment involves an element of sales. You are trying to sell yourself, your expertise, your product and the business you represent, over the competition. This does not come overnight. You will need to be prepared to start from the bottom, work for results, and fail at points. As in sport, you will hit stumbling blocks, but with high rewards, means there is an element of survival and a ruthlessness nature within the industry. What this means, is failure, criticism and adversity is inevitable. It is how you deal with this, how you improve and how you come back stronger next time, that separate’s top performers.

One of the biggest things commercial businesses and their employees can learn from an athlete, is how to deal with failure and criticism. The fundamental difference in approach is simple. Given an athlete’s upbringing, they are able to take failure on board, turn this into a positive, come back again for more, and try to find a way to improve in order to get to the end result. But many people in business, at all levels do not have the same mentally. Too often the message of failure and the need to improve is taken as a negative or a personal criticism, and often people don’t know how to both deliver, or deal with these messages. Why is this? It is not the case for all, but certainly if you compare an athlete to an academic/professional, an athlete’s performance is put under intense scrutiny on a daily basis, with a fine line between success and failure. Thus often they will have developed a mentality to dealing with criticism positively, and not hold grudges/take offence to justified criticism or failure. After all, athletes will often say they are their own harshest critics.

Dealing With Pressure

Recruitment is always going to be pressurised. Organisations will need you as a specialist recruiter, to find talent quickly, with high demands on quality of service. And with competition ready to step up to the plate at any time, the need to perform is constant. If you can’t give organisations what they need, there are plenty of others who can. Also, given the earning potential of recruitment, it comes with demanding KPI’s, and a results driven culture. For some, this pressure is very difficult to deal with, but for others, it is what drives them to succeed.

Athletes come from environments full of pressure. Pressure from fans, coaches, management, peers, and most significantly pressure put on themselves. Athletes are used to dealing with volatile pressure cookers, and often for many, it is the pressure an athlete puts on themselves that far outweighs any external pressures to perform and achieve results. As a result, athletes are used to making decisions effectively under pressure, and offer a high-performing culture that thrives under pressure. Athletes, if able to transfer their mind-set into a commercial environment, can set standards for people within business to follow.

Dealing With People

In essence, recruitment is all about dealing with people. Gaining trust and building individual relationships, so you can sell people to people, with a commercial approach. What is quite unique, is you work as part of a team to meet team objectives, but also you are very much operating under autonomy to be self-successful. The more success you have as an individual, the bigger the rewards for you and your team. The unique part of recruitment, is although you work towards team goals, you also are competing against your team-mates on a daily basis, to reach KPI’s, and ultimately to bring in the most individual success. It is this thrill and competition that excites many in the industry.

Many within business find this ‘out of character’ or unnatural. To work as a team, yet compete against each other is not an environment that a lot people can work effectively in. Athletes, particularly who have been successful in team sports, often see inter-team competition as second nature. Take football for example, you are all as a club, players and management striving for the same objective, to win. However there usually is 22+ players in a squad, and only 11 starting places. So it becomes second nature to compete against others on a daily basis, to ensure you are part of a starting team, which can help influence the overall team objective. A common saying in elite sport, is competition within a team is vital.

Why? Competing against others within a team, means individuals are always needing to improve and perform at a high level, and a high-performing team of athletes is often built on players pushing each-other to be better. Otherwise, if you stand still, there is always someone there to take your place.

This approach can be very rewarding in recruitment. Individuals who love to compete with each other, will subsequently bring out the best in team mates, which in turn will result in better team and individual performance. Athletes can thus bring this approach into business. They can set a high-performing team culture, which will promote healthy competition. On top of this, athletes know how to take responsibility, and understand the importance of their role within a team. This if translated into business terms, can promote real success through a high performing culture.

Recruitment is all about people, so it is an industry that allows people to proposer through their values, behaviours, approach and personality. You don’t need to have an academic background to be successful in recruitment. You need to have the right mentality, work ethic and competencies, coupled with a desire to learn. Athletes who chase their sporting dreams have to give up education at some point in their career, so recruitment can be a great career avenue for athletes leaving their sport, to transfer their competencies and behaviours obtained through professional sport.

Particularly as more and more top performers in recruitment, are successful because of their competencies and behaviours, which have been proven to be instilled in an athlete’s make-up.

The key feature here is, that many of the behaviours/competencies that organisations look for from their employees are extremely difficult to teach and learn. Dealing with pressure, a winning mentality, teamwork and the ability to overcome failure are all competencies that athletes have developed over years of competition and through an elite level lifestyle. Businesses are now realising that these cannot be taught over-night, but the competencies are proving to be the difference that makes the difference