The Home Economist: Why child athletes of all levels earn more as adults


Lori Wolk, a mother of three, was pleased after colleges came to her South Florida community of Parkland to recruit athletes. Mostly because Vassar College selected her daughter Lindsay — now a freshman — to play lacrosse for the selective liberal arts school. She always figured sports would offer a healthy involvement for kids, and today works to support the hectic schedules of her younger daughter, Abby, who is still in high school and also plays lacrosse, and of her son Jason, who is on his middle school’s soccer and wrestling teams.

“Sports opened up doors for my daughter, but it’s all driven by my kids. If they wanted to stop playing tomorrow, I’d tell them to stop playing tomorrow,” says Wolk. “I wouldn’t tell my kids they need to play a varsity sport in order to be successful in life.”

No worries; economists will tell them for you. They’ve known for decades that former varsity athletes earn more money. Now research shows why: Prospective employers perceive them to have better leadership skills and greater self-confidence than graduates who participated in extracurricular activities such as band or yearbook.

This is not (let’s repeat: not) a license to berate our kids after plays go bad. (Parents who yell at referees may need more help than we can offer here.) Because experts also explain that our kids don’t need to be the top athletes on the varsity teams — or even on the varsity teams, for that matter — to get the money-making skills from sports that are so coveted by corporations.

“It’s a question of persistence,” says Kevin Kniffin, an assistant professor at Cornell University. “We get the idea there are prosocial values — thinking about other people — that are obtained when playing on a team and they spill over to outside the team.”

Kniffin and his team of researchers first set up a proxy for a hiring situation by surveying 61 adults with an average age of 39 years old. He then asked them to rate their expectations of prospective employees. Without meeting the “candidates,” those “bosses” expected people who played sports in high school to be more confident leaders. (They did not, to Kniffin’s surprise, expect them to be better at time management.)

Kniffin then looked at 951 adults who had graduated from high school 50 years earlier, with average age of 78. The research team asked those people to rate their own sense of leadership, confidence and self-respect. The respondents who had played high school sports gave themselves scores superior to those who did not.

“In addition to the correlation between participation in high school sports and late-in-life leadership, self-confidence and self-respect,” says Kniffin, “we found people who played high school sports donated their time and money significantly more than people who didn’t play.”

Those experiments very much reflect a real-world corporate mentality, says Mary M. Young, the director of the Ziff Career Services Center for the University of Miami’s School of Business. At IBM, where Young formerly worked as an executive, managers would actively seek out candidates with sports backgrounds because that was a predicator of leadership skills and a person’s ability to collaborate and work well on teams.

“Goal setting and achievement, high pressure and stress situations,” says Young, “all of these are skills that student athletes possess and can bring to the professional work space.”

What’s more, UM has — through a partnership with the NFL — created an MBA program specifically for artists and athletes. Their competitive spirits, says Young, easily translate into entrepreneurial strength.

But leave the competition on the field, says Mark Hyman, author of The Most Expensive Game in Town: The Rising Cost of Youth Sports and the Toll on Today’s Families. Parental over-involvement in athletics — both emotionally and financially — not only costs money but can melt away the confidence and leadership skills the researchers find valuable. These attitudes are not only common, but worsening.

“It’s the global warming of youth sports,” says Hyman. “Because every year, the temperature creeps a little higher.”

Parents and coaches do best for kids by giving compliments, says Johanna Guma-Aguiar, sports director for a girl’s volleyball league and a traveling softball league in Miami. She agrees that sports develop critical skills, but says those can be — and often are — attained by players of all proficiencies, even those participating in recreational — not varsity — leagues.

The best athletes learn to depend on teammates (a kid who hogs the ball eventually loses the game for everyone) and the least able players learn that positive words and high-fives go far, says Guma-Aguiar. Confidence develops when a kid can’t serve the ball until — after weeks of practicing — she eventually can. Respect from teammates and opponents comes from arriving in uniform, standing tall, and shaking hands. Commitment? It’s developed when a kid shows up at every practice, meeting and game, she says.

“The minute you’re part of a team, no matter what level,” says Guma-Aguiar, “you’re learning these basic fundamentals.”

This is an occasional column by Miamian Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist who covers the psychology behind our spending, saving and earning money. Follow her at @BrettGraff or contact her at


Question: Great, so I played varsity or recreational sports in school. How do I tell prospective employers?

Answer: Put it right on your résumé, says Mary M. Young, director of the career services center at the University of Miami’s School of Business. At the bottom, be sure to have a section with awards, interests and activities —the perfect place to list your athletic participation.