4 Reasons Why Student Athletes Are Political Front-Runners

Women members of Congress in pink softball outfits

Women members of Congress played the women of the Washington, D.C., press corps at the Congressional Women's Softball Game. Image via usa.gov

January 21, 2016

While Title IX prevents sexual discrimination in all areas of education, the law is best known for ensuring gender equity in women’s athletics. The critical law has empowered millions of women athletes since it was implemented in 1972, including members of the beloved U.S. women’s national soccer team. What’s less obvious, though, is how women athletes who are empowered by Title IX are also equipped with the skills needed to step up to the plate and run for political office!

The connection between running on the field and running for office might not be clear at first. However, evidence suggests that student athletes have a competitive edge when it comes to future political careers. At some schools, coaches and athletic directors work together to nominate student athletes to attend Elect Her, a collaboration between AAUW and Running Start to encourage and train college women to run for and win student government positions on their campuses.

According to Emma Gresser, an Elect Her alumna and competitive swimmer at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, the lessons learned from participating in organized sports directly translate into the political arena. “Being a student athlete demands time management skills, the ability to lead a team, understanding teammates and coaches alike, and rising to the occasion in a positive light,” says Gresser. “All of these skills are easily interconnected to running a campaign or being an elected official.”

In fact, student athletes like Gresser may have an advantage when it comes to running for office for a few reasons.

1. They like to win.

A competitive nature and passion for winning aren’t just common traits of athletes; they’re also two crucial indicators that a woman will run for office. A 2013 study of the political ambitions of college students found that women who played sports competitively were 25 percent more likely to express political aspirations than women who did not.

2. They know how to lose.

Sports teach the valuable lesson of how to cope with adversity. Gresser says swimming has taught her that “It is okay to fail; what matters is how we react to it.” Student athletes learn not to let the fear of losing keep them from competing. Like politicians, they know that there are lessons to be learned from every loss. Exposure to competitive sports also gives athletes the chance to practice and the confidence to compete.

3. They are up for a challenge.

For athletes accustomed to intense practices and high-stakes competition, running for office might not seem as daunting. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who served as co-captain of the Dartmouth University tennis team, credits a squash match for teaching her valuable lessons that applied to running for office. Sen. Kelly Ayotte

(R-NH) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) also undoubtedly learned leadership lessons from their experiences with competitive skiing and surfing, respectively.

4. They know how to play well with others.

Political work requires sharp skills in collaboration, negotiation, and teamwork. The 20 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate provide a great example of the benefits of all of these traits, especially teamwork. They’ve been credited with being able to work across the aisle to reopen our government (and keep it open), and have continued in this same vein of productivity more frequently than their male colleagues.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) pinches former Speaker John Boehner's cheeks at the Congressional Women's Softball Game.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) pinches former Speaker John Boehner’s cheeks at the Congressional Women’s Softball Game.

Empowered by the Elect Her training she attended, Gresser plans to run for the director of athletics and spirit at the University of Cincinnati. “Elect Her encouraged me to put myself out there and get involved,” Gresser says. For AAUW’s part, we’ll be rooting for her on the sidelines.

This post was written by AAUW Elect Her Intern Regina Monge.


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