Sports and work ethics

Sep 28 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I was having an online exchange with someone (who may or may not wish to self identify in the comments) about mentoring for work ethic. 

As part of the meander, this person observed that sports participation may have a lasting influence on one's general work ethic, style, etc.

I felt more as though my approach* to sports as an adolescent and twenty-something was very similar to my evolved work style as my career developed. From this I conclude that it was probably something more essential about my personality that drove both styles or work ethics.

Interesting to think about causal lines though. 

How about you, Dear Reader? From whence comes your work ethic?

*it will not surprise you that I was never about putting in the 110% required for the very top echelon. 

34 responses so far

  • olympiasepiriot says:

    Although I was/am a jock, I cannot say that my approach to sports specifically translated nor translates to my work ethic. I think that the idea that the philosophy of sportsmanship, being part of a team, doing one's best on behalf of the group, etc, etc. being somehow related to how one functions in the rest of life is a fallacy. I'm inclined to go with occasional correlation, definitely not causation.

    My work ethic comes from my sense of duty. That influenced my continued participation in sports teams for the good of the team just as it influences my work now, not the other way around.

    [Tangent: I generally think too much emphasis is given to organized sports in an academic setting. I have made that clear in this comment at your friend FSP. Minus a couple of grammatical mistakes, I stand by that.]

  • RW says:

    Personally, I credit any exceptional work ethic that I may have to my upbringing (ie dirt poor farmers). I think kids might be able to learn a good work ethic from watching their parents work or working with their parents, which might not be as common for parents with jobs far from home. It's also easier for children to see the results of labor in agriculture; a farmer can show a kid a field of crops or a healthy cow, but a white collar worker might not be able to easily demonstrate to a child what they are working to do. Of course, I am trying to fit a hypothesis onto biased observations, so maybe this is just a reflection of my own biases. Still, I wish this population was better represented in research, if only to break the cycle of poverty that so many are caught in.

  • Andy says:

    I had aims to be a scientist from a very young age (yes, I was/am a nerd)...I also knew that given my family's economic circumstances, I would have to work my behind off to have any hopes of getting a scholarship for college (which I did), and then I knew I'd have to work by behind off to keep that scholarship and get into grad school (which I did), and then I knew I'd have to work my behind off to get and keep a job in my field (which I have done so far). I won't pretend my hard work alone is what led to these successes--there were lots of helping hands along the way--but that early motivation and work ethic has certainly stuck with me as a habit. Examples of work ethic in my own family (each in their own fields) certainly helped, too.

  • physioprof says:

    I've always been a lazy fucke.

  • drugmonkey says:

    But with souplesse, amirite PP?

  • drugmonkey says:

    RW- agree.

  • pinus says:

    said person discussing with DM is me.

    It stems from my own problems in motivating people who are not as motivated as me. Most people in my group are on the same page, with respect to motivation/effort. I have had a couple that are not, and I always struggle with how to deal with it. Which lead me to the assertion that work ethic is hard wired at a young age, maybe by sports involvement...or maybe just by how they are. I don't know anymore.

  • gmp says:

    I played volleyball in middle and high school and the first few years in college (club-based where I grew up; I also played for my high school when needed, didn't have organized college sports). I loved my time playing volleyball because a) I was good at it, b) I loved being part of a team -- I think the bonding that being on a team together, when you are sweating your brains out and have a common goal, brings about great friendships and is probably the best thing about doing sports when young. Volleyball provided me with a respite from the high school cliques. I was always a good student but definitely not part of the in-crowd; still, I didn't hurt for friends or socialization because of sports. I would have probably been considerably more miserable in high school as a too-brainy girl if it hadn't been for my team.

    As for work ethics, I have always been self-starting and competitive, and I competed in math and various sciences. I don't think the sport had much to do much with my attitude towards my science, at least not directly. I would say the greatest thing about sports was that it enabled me to keep feeling generally worthwhile during puberty, so the difficult social aspects of being a female brainiac in high school didn't deter me; I was able to remain focused on academics (which were always my innate passion) by decoupling them from the social aspect that is so important in puberty...

    Also , as my husband says, when you are a teen, there is all this excess energy that you have to direct somewhere and with great passion; it might well be something productive. Our eldest is in high school now and spends a lot of his time on two extracurriculars, one of which is a competitive sport. He's not very good (yet and may not be ever), but he's in great shape and his asthma is gone. He enjoys the club and high-school team friends, the post-practice endorphins, and just generally getting better and better with his technique.

    Btw, my middle kid who appears to be very, very intelligent also picked up this fascination with football (we don't really watch sports, so it's all peer induced). We have told him in no uncertain terms that he is not allowed to play football (or hockey or any such sport where the danger of him getting a head injury is very high). I will not have my bright kid get brain damage and squander his future so that random grownups could get their modern-day-gladiator kicks.

  • B. Kiddo says:

    It comes directly out of my stubbornness. Never did organized sports as a kid.

  • drugmonkey says:

    They don't start checking in US hockey until like 13,14 I think. So don't let that deter you. Soccer heading is probably worse.

  • Ass(isstant) Prof says:

    I was/am part of the jock spectrum, playing team sports until college, when I switched to individual sports.

    My observation is that sports can reinforce existing work ethic, but I don't see sport as inherently teaching it. Nor do sports hold exclusive domain of teaching teamwork and work ethic, as some would have us believe. What I have observed in many is that team sports help motivate those who are motivated by atta-girls/boys or peer pressure. In some cases, individual sport can help one learn to be internally motivated, but perhaps those who are internally-motivated (i.e. driven) are more likely to excel in individual sports. Those athletes will probably excel at team sports, too.

    What does this have to do with the lab? Not much! Other than fit people tend to be healthier and miss less work. My observation for trainees is that those who have done other things in life (successfully), like held shitte jobs to survive or simply pay for college, seem more likely to work hard in research. I was personally much more focused and motivated in grad school after spending post-undergrad time making a living in the construction business, risking injury, being exhausted (work ethic?), frostbite, etc. Classes and long days in the lab made a lot of sense in the long view.

    Looking over the whole picture, my work ethic as an athlete (semi-elite at times) and as a scientist is this: it feels good to work hard, physically and mentally, and and it feels good to do something well. Always has.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    I was a classically-trained ballerina kid/teenager, similar work ethic involved--by the time I quit in junior year of high school, I was dancing 3-4 hours a day, 6 days a week. I was also holding down a part-time job and performing in school plays, choir and orchestra. My trade-off was not getting straight As and never practicing my viola. So, I guess I've been ridiculously multi-tasking and prioritizing based on my acceptability levels for the 80% rule since being a kid--story of my career now. 🙂

  • DJMH says:

    What B Kiddo said. No sports, all attitude.

  • Draino says:

    I didn't play sports as a kid. Consequently I run my lab like a Dungeon Master.

  • Philapodia says:

    I wasn't a jock growing up, we were just dirt poor. My work ethic comes from wanting my kids to have a happier and more secure childhood than I did. At least that's what my therapist tells me.

  • SidVic says:

    Two things here. Son came home and announced that he wanted to wear wizard hat to school for D&D club. Panicked, i hustled his narrow ass into wrestling.. pronto. Great move although it has backfired a bit. He now can take me down at will.
    Nevertheless i highly recommend this sport. It's hardcore conditioning and they gain a certain masculine confidence that's hard to instill otherwise.

    Gymnastics; ahem. Mixed feeling here. Had girl that became semi- elite nast. 30hrs+ per week at gym and it is expensive as hell. With title 9 i highly recommend putting you girls into rowing, wresting or some other niche sport ... it can open alot of doors and scholarship opportunities.

  • nisodi says:

    Didn't do sports- but did do band. I guess it could have helped? I sure learned to work with other people.

    I have to agree with Ass(isstant) Prof, I think most of my ethic came from the hustle for a lack of a better word. School was never the only thing I did, I worked sometimes multiple jobs (mostly retail) to pay my rent and expenses along the way. Knowing what those jobs are like makes me appreciate the things I'm working for now a lot more.

  • Ola says:

    I grew up and was schooled in an environment dominated by athletics, military cadets, contact team sports and other team-work physical jerks. Beginning around age 12 I had severe negative reactions to it - any excuse to goof off. I went off to college with an aversion to sports of any kind. I wasn't physically unfit, but had a deep subconscious association between sports and feeling inadequate.

    Then around age 22 I discovered that sports can be enjoyed on a personal level - rock climbing, mountain biking, cross country marathon running - being out in the world and able to fuck up and not be laughed at. I discovered the power of the win for me. Not against the other team but against myself. This is precisely what high school and college team sports sought to expunge for so long... The idea of self. The idea that it's OK to fuck up, because the only person you let down is yourself. When the whole team is riding on your move, well screw that!

    This personal achievement stuff is what motivates me as a sportsperson. Now in my mid 40s I'm fitter than I was in my 20s, which is more than can be said for most of the jocks from school and college. I'm fit because I want to be, not because of some stupid comparison game.

    What I realize with 20/20 hindsight, is there's a total lack of nurture for the personal in school age sports. It's all about the team, and there's just no space in the school sports arena for personal achievement. Even in college athletics, gymnastics, swimming, it's all about the team. There's no such thing as school cycling (unless it's team). Hiking is a team sport (go at the pace of the slowest team member). For people like me, the solitude of sport is what makes it beautiful. It's the reason I'd rather be out in the woods XC skiing than in the gym comparing abs with the person on the adjacent elliptical trainer. It's why I'd rather swim in a lake than in a pool, rather power walk home from work than go play a pickup game after work.

    So, a couple of lessons for science from the choice to go solo on the sports front....

    1) Yes science is a team sport, but you'd better bring something to the game. That's where personal achievement comes in. I can still be a team player when called upon, but I see a lot of other people on the team who are reliant on the team. I pride myself on being able to function as a solo unit, no team required

    2) For all personal sports, you only get good by hanging out with people better than you. If you're the smartest person in the room, find a new room with smarter people.

    3) The downside of the personal approach, is you only have yourself to answer to. That grant isn't going to write itself.

  • FSGrad says:

    I did one of those sports that may not really be a sport, because there's judges involved. I competed for years, even though I usually came in at the bottom of the pack, because I enjoyed it. Boy did it ever teach me that no matter how hard I work, there's always someone better out there and the judges are subjective anyway. Which is, not surprisngly, is something I think about a lot these days.

  • becca says:

    I definitely started grad school like I trained as a swimmer. I had a bad habit of turning myself blue in practice from lack of oxygen. I also got ulcers at 17.
    But really, most of what I learned during my 20s was how to apply effort sensibly, and to recognize the context dependency of motivation.

    It is my observation that many people, when they first find themselves in a supervisory role, don't struggle with "how to motivate people with a crappier work ethic" than themselves. They struggle with understanding that other people are not motivated by the same things they are. This can lead to wacky things, like trying to attribute people's Fundamental Natures to Early Childhood Experiences. This is utterly flawed psychology, but helps you cope with the truth that a lot of their motivation is outside your control.

  • Grumble says:

    Sports are the most utterly boring human activity on the planet. I can't even stand watching the olympics. "Look how fast she's running!" Yeah, nice. Cheetahs and antelope also do a great job with that, but no one makes a fucking spectacle out of it every 4 years. "That dive was almost perfect, but he twitched his elbow, so he gets an 8." Dohhhhhhhhhh. Just kill me now. And don't even get me started with stupid team sports like baseball (what do you mean, I missed the play of the century while I was picking my kid's hot dog up off the floor?) or football (it's such a complex and intellectual strategy game! Which is why everyone watches it! Not because it involves giant muscle-bound men 12 standard deviations away from normal on the size scale, clobbering each other and being cared away on stretchers) or even basketball (why are these people so intent on this orange piece of rubber?) or soccer (why exactly is it that half the (male) population of the world has to find its identity in allegiance to some random collection of guys who run around chasing a ball like very serious little boys?).

    So maybe that explains why I go home at 5:00 every day to spend time with my family. But I doubt it. It just explains why I can't hold a conversation when I'm forced to interact socially with random selections of other men.

  • jmz4 says:

    My school had a requirement that everyone do a sport every quarter of every year. The main thing I learned from that which applies to lab work is that you won't be good at everything, so put your effort into the things you're good at and let the team carry you (or bench yourself) where you're weak.

    Science is a team sport. Maybe in the past, the lone brilliant scientist could get by only on his own skill and intelligence. Today, the people I see succeeding (from the PD trenches) are the ones that know how to get the most out of their colleagues (either the right way or the wrong way), and stick to what they do best.

  • Microscientist says:

    Like chemicalbiologist, I was a dancer and never very good at traditional sports. I would say the big thing I got out that experience was that practice and perseverance are essential to mastery, whether it is research, dance, or soccer.
    Also, I learned to enjoy the practice sessions for themselves. I still dance today, and it's not at all for any performances. No one wants to see me dance at my age! Rather, it's for the internal feeling that I get from dancing itself. I try and apply that to research as well- you have to enjoy the process, as much as the big outputs of papers, grants etc. I think this leads to a good work ethic, and all those Steve Jobs-esque statements of "loving what you do". You have to enjoy the process for yourself, and then you will be willing to put in the effort.

  • Susan says:

    I think the crucial thing that involvement or dedication to (sports/music/arts/etc) beyond the nominal teaches a person, with respect to work ethic, is about time management.

    To dedicate serious time to (sport/music/arts/etc) leaves you with much less time in which to complete your homework, or study for that test. If I didn't have to practice my thing, I'd have infinite time to get assignments done, but as it was, I had X time to get Y done. While my classmates might only see that I was gone during time Z, I was off doing my thing while they were just sitting around in study hall, so I recognized getting-things-done time vs. face time.

    I have struggled with trainees when their work ethic lacked. In part I felt it was due to their attitude that they could just do task K 'whenever', that they had infinite time and opportunity to get it done. But the diligence to get it done today, to solve whatever problems in the way now instead of just hoping it magically didn't reappear tomorrow, just wasn't there. This was a more fundamental issue than any given problem of the day, and I don't know how to really communicate it beyond focusing on the trainee getting to work on time, not wasting time when in the lab, using equipment properly, making checklists for trainee, having weekly meetings ... no matter what I did, there was always another thing that slipped, and it felt like a lot of work on my part just trying to impart a basic work ethic that just wasn't there.

    DM, maybe this is better suited for a separate topic, but - how do you screen for work ethic in interviews of trainees? Because everyone describes themselves as a Hard Worker! but the truth is out there.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I think that has to come from recommendations from people they worked with, and a review of their publication record/CV.

    But this is not something you can readily determine with high accuracy until the person is on board.

    The hands down most useless trainee ever in my lab came with a good productivity rec from a member of my extended academic family at the time. One of my most productive trainees ever came with a so-so rec (but I think in retrospect was probably a slight cultural / personal style thing).

  • Philapodia says:


    "I didn't play sports as a kid. Consequently I run my lab like a Dungeon Master."

    When students/post-docs ask how many times we need to do the experiment, I just pull out the tooled leather dice bag and say "2 + d8".


    Why squelch something your son was obviously interested in and force him into a "hetero-normative" mold?

  • PaleoGould says:

    Neither 4 hours of ballet a week nor 10 years of violin lessons really taught me much about work ethic. They were things I did for myself (well, ballet was. Violin was more complicated. I think mostly it was spending an hour a week away from everything else that kept me going. Violin lessons as quiet therapy).
    The insanity that is French secondary education, and preparation for an all-or-nothing end of high school week long exam marathon, that gave me a work ethic. One which is not entirely sustainable outside of an educational sweat shop.
    I think the extra curricular I did that taught me the most about commitment, priorities and work ethic was theater. Especially the one year we had to cancel our school play because none of us could commit to the work needed for a difficult piece.
    That's part of the reason I never auditioned for big parts in college: I did not want to over commit myself between my studies, and my hobby.

  • Anonymous says:

    "It is my observation that many people, when they first find themselves in a supervisory role, don't struggle with "how to motivate people with a crappier work ethic" than themselves. They struggle with understanding that other people are not motivated by the same things they are. "

    Yup -- nailed it!

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "But with souplesse, amirite PP?"

    Hahahah. Yep.

  • SidVic says:

    Why squelch something your son was obviously interested in and force him into a "hetero-normative" mold?

    Philopodia- are you for real? Yeah I'm a cave man. I sorta hope my son turns out to be Hetero normative. Not sure what it means but i like the sound of it and it beats homo abnormative (which i guess is the alternative). But seriously it was the wizard hat that sent me into the fit. I just don't want him getting his ass kicked too continuously in high school.

  • becca says:

    I dated a nerdy kid who picked up wrestling in high school to keep from getting his ass kicked continuously.

    Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be wrestlers. At least not if you want grandkids. No matter how hetero-normative that certain "masculine confidence" might seem.


  • drugmonkey says:

    For SidVic, et al.

  • Philapodia says:


    "She's white.

    No!!!! We were at least hoping for biracial grandchildren..."

    That's comedy gold right there...

  • JustAGrad says:

    Grumble, I'm with you.

    My work ethic probably stems from the fact that I had to work since I was 14 to be able to eat. Let's not pretend child protective services are capable of doing their job in the US.

    Why did I choose to work in research as opposed to any other endeavor that requires hard work? Probably because my parents detest education and it was my way of rebelling. School was also the only place I didn't have to fear for my safety. Plus, I get to do research that could eventually improve healthcare. What's not to like about that?

Leave a Reply