Do Athletes Make Good Salespeople

A number of companies and hiring managers love to hire former college athletes.

Their logic is based on the assumption that anyone who has the work ethic and grit to succeed as an athlete at the highest levels will successfully transfer those same attributes into the equally challenging world of sales.

The athlete may very well have a great work ethic and is probably also very competitive, which is good to see when identifying and selecting high-potential sales candidates. Although competitiveness is a critical element of Drive, a background as a successful athlete does not necessarily translate directly to success in sales.

To determine whether or not a former athlete is driven to succeed in sales, hiring managers should ask these important questions.

What motivates this sales candidate?

Was the sales candidate’s athletic success because of their initiative only, or did they have a coach pushing them to get out and practice each day?

If your candidate was, in fact, pushing themselves out of their own personal initiative, that is, of course, a great indicator of need for achievement, another key element of Drive.  

However, many athletes, while very skilled, rely on a coach or mentor to push them to succeed. In such a case, you would be better off with the non-athlete who worked a few jobs to put themselves through school while also striving to do well academically.

How do they handle rejection?

How Does the Sales Candidate Handle Rejection

While hiring high-Drive salespeople can certainly lead to improved sales, closing every sale is never a guarantee. In sales, rejection comes with the territory and it’s important to know your salespeople can handle that.

Optimism, another key element of Drive, can determine how a candidate deals with being turned down. A highly optimistic candidate can be told “no” and let it slide off their back as they continue to pursue new leads.

People who are low in optimism, however, do not deal well with rejection. They take it personally, and it is very hard for them to bounce back quickly and jump into the next sales opportunity with the confidence they need to carry the day.

Now, you might assume that great athletes must be optimistic. How else could they muster the dedication and commitment it takes to compete athletically at the highest levels?

You might be surprised by how many top athletes are actually not optimistic by nature and, in fact, channel their low optimism into their relentless need to get bigger, faster and stronger. You can see this work its way into bad decisions that can sometimes occur when athletes turn to potentially harmful supplements in the short term, even though they can have terrible long-term side effects.

A burning need to achieve. Highly competitive. But deep down operating more out of fear than optimism.

That is not to say that an athletic salesperson cannot innately be an optimist. They absolutely can be. But the point is that the correlation is not automatic. If you hire a great athlete that is not high in optimism, the chances of disappointment, underperformance and, ultimately, turnover are high. Consider these two examples.

The Middle Linebacker

A middle linebacker shows up that has had not only an outstanding athletic career, but also has sustained high performance at one of the most punishing and grueling positions in sports. One would intuitively think that if someone could succeed in the toughest position in sports, that person should be able to easily succeed in the “much less demanding” world of sales. But look a little deeper.

Growing up, this person has always been one of the biggest, strongest people in their world. They are used to outperforming everyone. They never get rejected.

Now they show up for work. But this time they are playing a different game, a game in which many of their natural attributes mean little. Now they have to live by their wits and, most of all, they have to absorb and rationalize rejection.

The Hardworking Non-Athlete

You have a candidate that is not an athlete, but they too have a high need to achieve which has been demonstrated by the two jobs they held while putting themselves through school.

One of those jobs involved some selling and while they were routinely rejected three out of four times — their industry’s norm — they did not even think about that. They needed to generate income for their education and concentrated on the fact that they knew they needed to make four calls to close a deal. Rejection was just part of the game.This candidate might very well be a better investment than the accomplished athlete, obviously depending upon other important variables to be vetted during the interview, but optimism is a critical piece of the puzzle and is too important to be assumed via a stereotype.

How do you assess for core aptitude?

The NFL has an interesting way of assessing top prospects so that teams can make informed decisions prior to drafting and signing athletes.

They invite them all to participate in what is called the Combine. This is an annual event when prospects are invited to a workout facility, and are assessed for key aptitude strengths and weaknesses that data has shown are critical to succeeding as a professional football player in a given position.

For example, in order to succeed as a defensive back, the athlete needs to be able to run fast enough, both forwards and backwards, and jump high enough, to cover the receivers who will be coming at them game after game.

The trouble is that without testing for these traits, which cannot be taught beyond a certain potential, although an athlete might have succeeded in college under different circumstances, their weaknesses will be exposed in the pro game against other top athletes.

The Combine strips away the other variables, the college team’s stature or competition, for example, and gathers raw aptitude data about the various athletes the teams are considering.

If the aptitude is in place, the teams can then apply subjective criteria. They know they are starting out with certain core traits that must be in place as a foundation.

In sales, these key traits include Need for Achievement, Competitiveness and Optimism, which, when combined, make up Drive, the number one indicator of a top-performing salesperson.

Testing can Determine Sales Success

Great athletes often bring all sorts of good things to a company. They can be smart, inspirational, energetic and great door openers and ambassadors for a company and/or a brand. They can also be outstanding salespeople, but not just because they are great athletes.

Jumping to that conclusion without deeper assessment is a high-risk hiring methodology.

You still need to vet a sales candidate who was a former athlete for Need for Achievement and Optimism to be sure they will have the desire for excellence and the resilience necessary for success in new account acquisition. Sales aptitude needs to be measured by administering a sales assessment test and conducting a behavioral interview.

When it comes to hiring great athletes who you hope will become great salespeople, the best of both worlds is definitely possible, which is delightful but not necessarily probable, so be sure to bring science, data and objectivity to the sales hiring process.