Athletes are tough – not necessarily because they can run the fastest mile or jump the highest, but because being ‘the best’ takes some very special character traits. Athletes internalize the toughness required by their sport, expanding the boundaries of athleticism beyond the court or field and into their daily lives. These character traits garnered through sport are not only rewarded on the athletic field, but in the workplace as well. In fact, Wall Street firm Drum Associates opened its very own self-described executive ‘search firm’ that exclusively recruits current and former college athletes. (Bloomberg article)

While it may seem a bit radical, the idea really isn’t that ‘out there’…

A 2013 blog post by a successful entrepreneur and businessman outlined why he fills his company with athletes. He explains that athletes embody six key ‘athlete traits’ which make them productive and successful additions to the workplace. He argues that athletes strive for success even in the face of failure, set goals, and are driven to cultivate new skills, practice balance and entrepreneurialism and work well in a team setting. Men have had a jump start in cultivating these character traits through organized sport.

Since the time of ancient Greek gladiators, men have been revered for their physical athleticism – encouraged to participate in sport and, in turn, are acknowledged and applauded for their strength, perseverance, grit and power. Women who participate in organized sport certainly gain the same character traits, but the resulting opportunities have been less promising.

Why women lack the advantage

While men have been reaping the job benefits of their ongoing participation in organized sport, women have not been so fortunate. While women have certainly been integrated into organized athletics at all skill levels, organized sport separates men and women into distinct leagues, teams, and categories – giving higher social regard to men’s participation. Look no further than the stands at men’s professional football and basketball games. Upwards of 20,000 roaring fans attend the average NBA game, while the WNBA may only attract, at best, a quarter of that number.

Even at a grassroots level, women’s participation in organized sport declines drastically as they age. In the United States, for example, girls have 1.3 million fewer opportunities to participate in high school sports than boys. As they age, the opportunity further narrows as the availability of quality coaches, facilities and equipment is often allocated more to men’s programs. This lack of opportunity, along with peer pressure to be viewed as ‘girly’ or ‘feminine’ rather than tough and athletic, often causes girls to quit before they can truly benefit. Women who do continue pursuit of sports value and love participating in them just as much as men, but society, in general, has not appreciated that involvement as a valuable asset.

Tough fitness is a game changer

So the question is: Where can women get the ‘athlete’s edge’ when organized sport has been long absent from their lives? The answer, we believe at Reebok, is through Tough Fitness sports like CrossFit, obstacle racing and combat training.

If you were to walk into an average CrossFit class, you would see men and women, side by side, doing the exact same WOD (CrossFit lingo for ‘Workout Of the Day’). CrossFit gyms around the globe have co-ed teams, the best of which compete for the title of ‘Fittest on Earth’ at the Reebok CrossFit Games each year in Carson, California. Both male and female CrossFit athletes receive the same prize money if they win the games. Spartan and combat athletes have a similar experience. Both male and female Spartan athletes jump over obstacles, wade through mud and suffer through burpees…together. Both male and female fighters train with one another in the gym, and female fighters are revered and applauded in society for their toughness, strength and fortitude. Athletes in these sports are not qualified by their gender; they are recognized for their skill. In her UFC fights, Ronda Rousey is introduced as the ‘Bantamweight Champion of the world’, not the ‘Women’s Bantamweight Champion’.

Ronda Rousey - the ‘Bantamweight Champion of the world’

Why it matters on the job

Tough Fitness activities have opened up new avenues for women to gain the athletic skills and resulting character traits that have in the past given men the ‘athletic advantage’ in the workplace. Why do these sports give women such a benefit?

Working with men in the gym, in the same activity, can translate into a more productive, collaborative, working relationship. Men, who historically play the role of ‘manager’ or ‘boss’ in the work environment, will witness these skills first hand in the women who they work with, network with, or might consider hiring.

“I began my role at Reebok as a young 22-year-old girl, straight out of college. I didn’t know what to expect. But in my first days as a Reebok employee, I went to CrossFit and worked out alongside the President of the brand. Since then, we have bonded over struggling through handstand push-ups, burpees and power cleans at our daily 12pm CrossFit class. I believe this has helped my career development. As a young, relatively inexperienced employee, my exposure to the ‘boss’ on a human level at CrossFit has made me more comfortable sharing my ideas with my senior superiors, like the brand President. In turn, he feels confident consulting me when he is looking for insight from someone who can speak to the needs of the ‘FitGen’, our target consumer.”

Tough fitness activities – accessible to all

Furthermore, Tough Fitness sports have a ‘low’ bar of entry for women, solving the access and quality problems associated with traditional team sports. You can join a CrossFit gym with no prior experience. For women who have rarely or never participated in organized sport in the past, the barriers to entry in becoming a CrossFit, Spartan athlete or someone who trains like a fighter are minimal – yet women who choose to participate in these fitness endeavors are accumulating the same skills recognized as integral to success in the workplace – in spite of the fact that they haven’t participated in ‘traditional’ sport in the past.

Confident in the box and at work

“Not one person – ever – has called me an athlete. Then a neighbor talked me into training with her to do a Spartan Race. I thought for sure I was going to be the one in tears, lying in the mud, caught in barbed wire. A funny thing happened though. The more I trained, the more confident I felt. I felt like an athlete. I can’t say that I didn’t shed a tear (or two) on the day of that first race, but I overcame all the obstacles and at the end felt a sense of achievement I had never experienced before in my life. Around the same time as this first race, I was interviewing for a new job. I was asked by the interviewer, ‘What unique skills do you have that make you the person for this position’ I could with all honesty answer that in my journey to becoming a Spartan athlete, I learned that there is no success without failure. And by setting goals, with the support of my teammates, I realized that I could achieve something that I had never, ever thought possible.”

Improved self-image equals better performance

By choosing Tough Fitness sports, women can take back the definition of beauty and femininity and redefine what being feminine means for themselves instead of kowtowing to the unrealistic standards of beauty portrayed by traditional media.

Take Ronda Rousey – who suffered from body image issues as a teenager. Through her journey to becoming a UFC superstar, her mentality and attitude toward her body and her capabilities have changed completely. In a recent shoot for Maxim she intentionally arrived sixteen pounds over her fighting weight, because, as she says, she didn’t want to glamorize her body in an ‘unhealthy’ state. For women dealing with their own body image struggles, Tough Fitness sports give them an avenue to redefine what they believe is beautiful about themselves. The focus becomes not so much about outward physical appearance, but how their body performs. As they strive to improve their fitness performance, they sharpen all those skills so desired by the business world – self-confidence, perseverance, team work, goal setting and balance. Women around the world are finding that participating in tough, gritty, back to basics fitness is not only allowing them to take back the standard definition of ‘beauty’, and level the playing field when it comes to business and work, but it is truly making them better people – better mothers, daughters, employees, bosses, sisters, wives and friends.

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“For me, fitness means more than just plodding away at the treadmill for an hour. It’s not really about the exercise or the physical results, but more about living a fuller, more connected life through physical activity. I am more alive and more connected to the world because, through movement, you discover yourself and the world around you on a deeper level. The journey of fitness leads you to practice and appreciate the value of goal-setting, resilience, respect for others (and yourself), communication, empathy, and the importance of passion and enjoying what you do on a daily basis. Fitness is not always glamorous and beautiful; it can be gritty and ugly. But guess what? The true beauty of fitness is not that you get toned muscles. Fitness helps you tackle the tough stuff in work and life. You learn that tomorrow is a new day and a new workout and the only way that you achieve results is by keeping your long-term vision in mind and finding enjoyment in the challenge.”  – Brooke Rosenbauer, Reebok Social Purpose Operations and Strategy Manager


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by Aaron Robinson 19.07.2016
Cross Fit is a great alternative to organized team sports where politics and lack of opportunity are the norm. In The Box, the only politics are in between your ears. Luckily, in this setting you have a team of people (family) that are rooting for you to crush your previous MAX. Pushing you beyond what you thought was possible. I've watched the Reebok Cross Fit games and have witnessed the most beautiful women do things that are Beyond Tough.

Great article!
Nina Weihrauch
Nina Weihrauch | Editor Aaron Robinson 22.07.2016
Hi Aaron,
thanks for your comment.
Would you say that doing CrossFit makes you better at work as well? We're curious to learn more about your experiences.