A popular sales hiring belief is that former athletes make great salespeople. The theory is that an athletic pedigree correlates with traits that predict sales success like discipline, work ethic, and a drive to win. But is it true?

Let’s take a look at the data.

What the data reveal about former athletes in the workplace

Research by Henderson and colleagues examined the early career outcomes of 646 male collegiate athletes who graduated college in 1970-1971. athletes-salespeople-ideal-candidate

They found that, compared to non-athletes, former athletes earned between 1.5 to 9 percent more income on average. The researchers also found that these former athletes were more likely to rate themselves higher on a “drive to achieve” and more likely to have the goal of “being well-off financially” compared to non-athletes.

The takeaways

Although the “hire former athletes as salespeople” maxim is common, there doesn’t seem to be any direct research validating whether it’s true or not. The only data I could find is indirect evidence from the 1970s that men who played sports in college may perform better in sales compared to their non-athletic peers based on the fact that they tend to make more money on average.

So should you hire former athletes as salespeople?

The data suggest it doesn’t hurt, but there’s a major problem with this sales hiring tactic: It doesn’t scale. According to Career Athletes, only about 4 percent of college graduates played intercollegiate athleticsmichael-jordan-ideal-candidate

Luckily, the research points us to a more productive and scalable sales hiring strategy: assessing and hiring salespeople based on the underlying personality traits associated with former athletes, including a drive to achieve and a motivation for financial gains.

Have you had success with hiring former athletes as salespeople in your company? Let me know in the comments or tweet @ideal.

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Ji-A Min

Ji-A Min

Head Data Scientist at Ideal
Ji-A Min is the Head Data Scientist at Ideal. With a Master’s in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, Ji-A promotes best practices and data-based HR. She writes about trends and research in talent acquisition, people analytics, and workplace diversity.
Ji-A Min