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Why Former College Athletes Make Great Sales Pros

December 21st, 2017
by Kevin Harris

“I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”

  – Walt Disney, world-famous American businessman, animator, voice actor and film producer

This quote, from one of the most well-known entrepreneurs in history, strikes a chord deep within the soul of every great sales professional. At the heart of the quote is the idea that competition brings out the best in many people. The drive to win, the resolve to give every ounce of effort and the determination to never give up are all core elements found in the DNA of top professional sellers.

Lead Pic PoolThese are personality traits that existed in individuals long before they entered the professional sales industry, though. And as it turns out, they are traits shared with a very notable group of people working towards degrees at the collegiate level: student-athletes.

Student-athletes are a collection of some of the most committed, driven, hard-working people you’ll ever meet. It’s not just that they’ve spent the better part of their first few decades of life eating, sleeping and breathing their chosen athletic endeavor. It’s also the fact that this unbelievably difficult pursuit has been balanced with a firm commitment to scholastic achievement in parallel.

By now, it’s been well-established that the overwhelming majority of college athletes competing across all division levels are not moving on to play their respective sports professionally (or competing at the Olympic-level if their sport does not offer professional options).

When the dust settles and their sports-playing days are over, these remarkably driven individuals can often find a very natural home in a thrilling, competitive environment that will cater to their personal strengths and satisfy their singular focus on winning.

Here are five characteristics that former college student-athletes possess which directly translate to success in the world of professional sales.

  1. Time Management Skills and Self-Discipline

“We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”

  – Jesse Owens, 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist and U.S. Track & Field Legend

Every top sales professional has mastered the art of managing their time meticulously and creating a very disciplined approach to their day-to-day work life. Doing this allows them to cover as much ground as possible and maximize their potential success every single day. In sales, as in sports, you’ll only get out precisely what you put in.

Former college student-athletes have faced the need to manage time and be excessively self-disciplined throughout their lives. Balancing time between classes, projects, papers, test preparation, regular sports practices, fitness workouts and games is an absolute requirement. Their time has been at a premium from the moment they stepped foot on campus.

These high-achievers simply cannot afford to relax and let any of those time demands slip – or they won’t be a college athlete for very long. This level of mandatory time management is something non-athletes typically never face during their college years.

Completing that balancing act successfully means they have incredibly good habits ingrained in them that are central to wildly successful sales professionals. They come into early-stage sales jobs “hard-wired” for successful time management and self-discipline. This puts them at a huge advantage over sales pros that have never experienced such demands.

  1. CoachabilityPhoto via Winslow Townson/AP

 “It is not all about talent. It’s about dependability, consistency, being coachable, and understanding what you need to do to improve.”

  – Bill Belichick, 5-time NFL Super Bowl Winning Head Coach

Great sales pros are not born, they are developed over time. There are no shortage of sales strategies and methodologies successful pros must learn and adopt based on the situation they are selling in. This great rundown from an article on the Selling Power blog (“The Top 10 Sales Methodologies You Should Consider for Your Business”) gives a small glimpse at this vast universe.

Top-flight pros learn to absorb, apply, tinker with and perfect these strategies over the course of a career. They fiercely adopt the methods that work for them and they discard things that do not help them improve. The great ones are self-aware and know what they don’t know – using natural curiosity to fuel a hunger to learn and improve.

And one of the best ways to improve rapidly is to receive regular coaching (from a mentor, a manager, a peer or others). Taking those lessons and applying them in real-life situations is the essence of being coachable. A great coach has “been there and done that” and can effectively help shape a willing student by relating lessons and successful tactics they learned over the years.

Athletes spend their lives being coached and the very best ones – like the ones that make it to play at the college level – have been able to continually receive this coaching and actively apply it to their game. As a result, these individuals are generally very comfortable receiving guidance, feedback and training on a regular basis. They tend to be receptive to all forms of coaching – positive, negative and anything in between. Whatever can make them better, they’ll take it and learn from it.

While their peers in new sales roles may struggle with coaching, especially if that coaching is particularly candid, former college athletes embrace it.

  1. Competitive Nature

“I play to win, whether during practice or a real game. And I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win.”

 – Michael Jordan, NBA Hall of Fame Player and 6-time World Champion

Athletes derive pleasure from competing to win. They aren’t interested in anything less than the top spot and, for that spot, they will sacrifice a great deal. It motivates them to keep going long after most people would have quit. They have learned to delay self-gratification or short-term rewards in order to win the larger prize.

That competitive drive is the same stuff that fuels the very best sales professionals to outhustle and outlast peers and competitors. That doesn’t mean they will be the very best every single time, but they certainly won’t let anyone outwork them.

Many people enter professional sales because they want the ability to determine their own monetary worth. They relish the opportunity to compete and win – and be rewarded for the winning appropriately. This type of competitive nature separated out the college athlete early in their lives and helped push them forward throughout their athletic endeavors. It serves them remarkably well when they hang up their cleats and enter the sales world.

  1. Ability to Cope with Adversity

“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”

 – Vince Lombardi, NFL Hall of Fame Coach and Legend

Every athlete encounters adversity many times over during their athletic careers. The crucible of competition at increasingly elevated levels exerts a great deal of pressure on these individuals. They inevitably do not win every single competition or make each play required to succeed. They will likely encounter injuries, coaching missteps, officiating errors and a variety of other factors outside their control that can cause headwinds against their success (in both the short and long run).

The best athletes fight the urge to give in to excuses and, instead, focus on doing the things that are within their control to maximize their chances of winning. They have an ability to acknowledge challenges, accept those challenges and press forward with passion. This mentality is perhaps best characterized by the phrase, “Refuse to lose.”

Adversity requires an individual to pick themselves up off the mat and persevere when the going gets tough. In sales, rejection and adversity is a daily occurrence for professionals. Many new sales pros struggle with this aspect of the job (especially early on), but athletes are used to using adversity as fuel for future success. Since quitting is not in their nature, the adversity of rejection tends to slow them down far less than a non-athlete.

  1. Inner Drive

Photo via Simon Broty/Sports Illustrated“Celebrate what you’ve accomplished, but raise the bar a little each time you succeed.”

  – Mia Hamm, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion

College athletes have a drive to succeed on the inside that separates them from competitors. They understand acutely that talent alone is not enough, and that talent must be paired with a strong work-ethic to achieve personal success. They are goal-setters and bar-raisers. What’s “good enough” for most people is nowhere near their target achievement. They’re used to going after goals with relentless abandon and they hate losing as much, or more, than they love winning. That fear of losing drives them to go the extra mile or complete a seemingly impossible task.

Sales success requires a similar commitment to hustle and a relentless inner drive. Sales pros understand that it is only through their own blood, sweat and tears that they will succeed – nobody is going to hand them anything. They have chosen a profession that explicitly rewards individuals based on merit and that suits them just fine. The college athlete thrives under these conditions and usually prefers them to anything else.

At memoryBlue, we’ve had a ring-side seat to witness the success of former college athletes in sales. Some of our best hires of all-time played sports at the college level, including 2017 memoryBlue Alumni of the Year Julianne Sweat. The characteristics outlined in this post are not exclusive to former athletes, but they certainly are found in abundance in people that played sports in college.

If you played sports in college and are searching for a career that will energize you and reward some of your best traits, it may be time to give a serious look at professional sales.

To learn more about how memoryBlue Sales Development Representatives play to win and see how to launch a successful tech sales career with us, click here.

Recruiting Advice, Sales Career Advice, Sales Job Search Advice

Kevin Harris

About the Author: Kevin Harris is the Director of Marketing at memoryBlue. A seasoned professional with over 19 years of experience in public relations, marketing and content management, Kevin oversees all major internal and external communications programs for the firm. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications from James Madison University.


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