Where do I fit in? Can personality traits of athletes lead the way?

Would Elon Musk also have had the potential to become a professional athlete? What else can we expect from LeBron James as an entrepreneur? And do the parallels in the mindset of entrepreneurs and athletes show that entrepreneurship is a good career path for professional athletes away from their sports careers?

When I look at the athletes I work with, a resounding “yes.” Of course, the challenges are great to become successful once again in a completely different environment. But their drive to always want to develop further and their willingness to fail, combined with the ability to get back up again, is a good basis for tackling the challenges.

In Dr. Kathrin Steinbrink´s latest research on athlete entrepreneurship, recently published with Celine Ströhle at Springer Nature, exploring the connection between resilience and entrepreneurial intention among top athletes, she concludes:

“Top athletes gain many unique experiences that lead to extraordinary skills. Comparing top athletes and non-athletes, we found that resilience indirectly influences entrepreneurial intention, mediated by personal attitude, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. Individuals with high levels of resilience, whether gained through competitive sport or other adverse experiences had a positive relationship with the explaining factors of entrepreneurial intention. The study concludes that top athletes are ideal candidates for entrepreneurship due to their high level of resilience. Therefore, resilience training is not only possible and recommended for future founders, but also for all of us. And sports can be one way to do so.”

LeBron James, who is 38 years old, has been playing in the NBA for 20 seasons and still produces excellent performance levels. In addition to his sports career, he has also pursued a career as an entrepreneur, so his path in business will continue after his sports career. Of course, LeBron can build on a good team around him, but in the same way that having the right team around you is complex in sports, how challenging it can be to build the right team around you in business is not to be underestimated. He succeeded in that too.

So are there any similarities in the way successful entrepreneurs and athletes think and act? Here are a few key similarities:

  • Strong work ethic: Both groups have a strong work ethic and are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve their goals. They are often willing to work long hours and make sacrifices to succeed. Both Musk and James are known for their commitment to excellence and their willingness to put in the hard work necessary to achieve their goals. Musk has been known to work long hours and set ambitious goals for his companies, while James is known for his intense training regimen, his performance-enhancing habits off the court, and his dedication to improving his game.
  • Perseverance: Both groups face setbacks and obstacles along the way, but they are resilient and able to overcome these challenges. They have a never-give-up attitude and are willing to keep pushing forward until they reach their goals. Musk has faced several production delays and technical challenges in developing Tesla cars and SpaceX rockets, while James has faced injuries and tough competition throughout his basketball career.
  • Goal-oriented: Successful entrepreneurs and professional athletes are highly goal-oriented. They set specific, measurable goals and work tirelessly to achieve them. They are often highly competitive and driven to be the best in their field. Both Musk and James are known for their ability to think big, envision a future that others may not see, and their determination to achieve goals. Musk has been able to disrupt several industries by developing innovative technologies, while James has been a game-changer in the basketball industry with his unique style of play.
  • Risk-taking: Both groups are willing to take risks and make bold moves to achieve their goals. Entrepreneurs often take financial risks to start their business and follow a path no one has taken before, while professional athletes not only take physical risks to compete at the highest level, but also have to take deliberate risks in the competition to come out on top in the end. Both Musk and James are willing to take risks in pursuit of their goals. Musk has taken on significant financial risks to fund his companies, while James has made bold moves in his career, such as leaving his hometown team to join the Miami Heat in pursuit of a championship — not to mention the risk LeBron takes if he takes the last shot before the game clock runs out.
  • Adaptability: Both groups need to be adaptable and able to adjust their strategies as circumstances change. Entrepreneurs need to pivot their business plans when market conditions shift, while athletes need to adjust their training plans in response to injuries and respond to opponent actions or changes in circumstances when competing. Both Musk and James are driven by a desire to innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible. Musk has been able to develop new technologies because he anticipated developments and adapted to them faster than others., while James has been able to revolutionize the way basketball is played through his innovative style that allows him to literally play all five traditional positions giving coaches that much-desired versatility in their lineups.

In summary, successful entrepreneurs and professional athletes share a strong work ethic, perseverance, goal orientation, risk-taking, and adaptability. These traits help them overcome challenges and achieve their goals, whether it’s building a successful business or excelling in their sport.

What does this mean for further career paths of athletes — also considering the Person-Fit theory?

Career prospects - two personalities

As early as the late 1950s, scientists began to think about the fit between people and work (Holland 1959), and over the years, a great deal of research has been done in this area. This fit can be divided into person-environment fit, person-job fit, person-group fit, and person-supervisor fit (Kristof-Brown et al. 2005). If these fits exist, we feel comfortable and do our job well.

For example, an athlete who feels comfortable in his or her environment, i.e., there is a fit with the training group, and the interaction with the coaches and officials also works, is able to perform well. For outstanding performances, also in international competition, it is necessary that the individual abilities correspond to those of a competitive athlete. This does not only mean the physical prerequisites, but also the personality traits, which essentially determine the success as an athlete.

This individual fit between person and job is described by the person-job fit: individuals and their job match if individual ability and the job requirements match or/and needs and desires of the individuals are served by their job (Kristof-Brown et al. 2005).

If we now apply this reasoning to personality traits of professional athletes with the goal of defining matching job profiles beyond sports careers, entrepreneurship is obvious. Steinbrink et al (2020), for example, highlighted these in their work, examining what distinctions there are among professional athletes versus non-athletes in terms of their personality traits according to the Big Five and in terms of their attitudes toward risk. They conclude:

Professional athletes are more emotionally stable, extroverted, conscientious and risk-aware than non-athletes and thus exhibit a similar personality profile to entrepreneurs.

Also, Elon Musk and LeBron James share several key similarities in their way to think and act, including their visionary thinking, perseverance, focus on innovation, risk-taking, and commitment to excellence. These traits have helped both individuals achieve remarkable success in their respective fields.

The outstanding personality traits of athletes should also play a significant role in their career paths after their sports careers. Even if it sounds trivial, the better the fit, the more promising the career beyond sports. As the research by Steinbrink et al. (2020) shows, entrepreneurship can be a career path suitable for competitive athletes.

So, given the parallels between athletes and entrepreneurs, it may make sense to look at opportunities beyond sports early on and take the first steps that lead in an entrepreneurial direction. Further education plus personal guidance in the form of coaching, mentoring or sparring can provide entrepreneurial knowledge and practical experience, reduce fears and shape a clearer picture of a career as an entrepreneur.

Already during sports careers, athletes can furthermore establish initial contacts in corresponding ecosystems or even take on first roles in startups in order to be able to bear more and more responsibility over time and/or start a venture themselves. During the active time as an athlete, the conditions for a successful transition can thus be created to suit one’s own preferences and abilities.

Whether Elon Musk would have had the potential to become a good athlete? If so, then probably as a martial artist…


Holland, J. L. (1959). A theory of vocational choice. Journal of counseling psychology, 6(1), 35.

Kristof, A. L. (1996). Person-organization fit. An integrative review of its conceptualizations, measurement, and implications. Personnel Psychology, 49(1), 1–49.

Steinbrink, K. M., Berger, E. S., & Kuckertz, A. (2020). Top athletes’ psychological characteristics and their potential for entrepreneurship. International Entrepreneurship and Management Journal, 16(3), 859–878.

Fisher, R., Maritz, A., & Lobo, A. (2016). Does individual resilience influence entrepreneurial success? Academy of Entrepreneurship Journal, 22(2), 39.