Nerds lose ground. New research says jocks do better later in life.

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Earlier this month, nerds everywhere were rejoicing over research findings that middle school cool kids are decidedly less cool a decade later. It seems the kids who were cool at age 13 – and whose coolness was measured in large part by delinquency – had dropped significantly in the esteem of their peers by age 22.

The study was hailed as the “Revenge of the Nerds” by the media, us included, because a) who can resist that sort of headline? and b) we were not the cool kids, something you’d know immediately if you ever met us.

Well, today it’s the jocks coming out on top.

Researcher Kevin M. Kniffin at Cornell University conducted two studies and found that participating in youth sports has a “spill over” effect on career success.
The studies surveyed 66 adults”

“[Subjects were asked] what kind of employee is most likely to display “self-confidence, leadership, time-management skills, volunteerism, charitable behavior and self-respect?” Choices were adults who, as youths, played varsity basketball in high school, ran for the school’s cross country team, played trombone in the school band or participated in the yearbook club.”

The first study found that “people expect former student-athletes to display significantly more leadership, self-confidence, and self-respect than those who were active outside of sports – such as being in the band or on the yearbook staff.”

The second study then found that sports participation had a positive impact on career status and social behaviour, later in life, among older men: “Men who participated in varsity-level high school sports an average of 60 years earlier appeared to demonstrate higher levels of leadership and enjoyed higher-status careers. Surprisingly, these ex-athletes also exhibited more prosocial behavior than nonathletes—they more frequently volunteered time and donated to charity.”

The study authors say the findings “open a wide range of possibilities regarding how one’s participation in competitive youth sports might influence the development of important skills and values beyond simply signaling the specific traits examined here.”

Kind of flies in the face of the whole captain-of-the-football-team-who-peaked-in high-school-and-wound-up-a-fat-beer-swilling-loser cliche, doesn’t it?

And it actually makes a lot of sense. Jocks used to get a bad rap in movies of the 1970s and 1980s, but there has been a pop cultural reversal in recent years, as anyone who has seen the 21 Jump Street movie knows. The reality is that participating in sports has the potential to teach us how to apply ourselves, work hard, be disciplined, strategize, and work well with others, among other things.

Apparently, the takeaway here is: if you did participate in sports, bring this to the attention of a potential employer. You might have to craftily work it into conversation, since high school football might look a little weird on your resume in your thirties or forties.

The researchers also suggest employers ask potential candidates whether they played youth sports.

“For managers [our] findings support the common practice of asking job candidates … whether they played competitive youth sports,” they say. “This question could have importance for responses from older job applicants who are relatively far removed from high school just as much as … for 30-year-old applicants.”

Kniffin, a Professor of Consumer Behavior, says: “Something very special happens on scholastic playing fields and tracks and basketball courts. Student-athletes, whether or not they are captains or leaders of their teams, are exposed to leaders in an environment that rewards transformational leadership. The focus in youth sports is on prosocial traits: respect, trust and confidence. That experience spills over wherever their adult lives take them.”

Did you play a sport in school, and how do you feel this has helped or hindered you as an adult? Tell us about it.

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