Should You Say No to Sports at Work?

sports-at-workYour office is planning an athletic event, and you want to stay far, far away. Even if you’re worried about feeling awkward, should you go anyway to take advantage of the networking opportunities? How can you say NO to work-related sporting events, like golf and tennis outings, and what are you missing out on if you do? Reader B wonders…

Your recent post about dressing for summer events led me to an older post about how to dress as a golf newbie… and boy, the comments struck a chord with me. Or maybe a nerve. I’d love to see a post, and more discussion, on how to deal with outings of all types — particularly when they’re for expensive and time-consuming sports that you don’t play and don’t want to pick up.

A lesson (or even a few lessons) are absolutely NOT enough to get me through a golf scramble. Can I swing and miss 18 times while joking gracefully? Can I pull off an outright refusal? Is it a bad idea to drive the beer cart (this always sounds like it should come with a costume), or just show up for drinks/dinner afterwards? And what do I do after 17 miserable holes, when my division manager is standing at the 18th with his arms folded to judge my golf game?

For reference, I’m in engineering, not law, with 15+ years of experience.

Interesting question, Reader B! In the past, Kat has recommended participating in athletic work events, even if you don’t think your skills are so hot, but we thought we’d get another opinion as well. We talked to Women on Course founder Donna Hoffman (who also advised us on our recent post on proper golf wear) to get her take on this situation. “Golf is so much more than getting the ball in the hole,” she says. “There are so many more benefits” — including the camaraderie, and the opportunity to build relationships.

Here’s what Hoffman recommends for Reader B:

  • Consider the career benefits of taking part. “The informal networking and bonding that goes on, the stories that happen — there’s a disadvantage not going,” says Hoffman. It may be worth it to grin and bear it.
  • Know that not everyone will play like a pro. “Women have the perception that everyone’s great,” Hoffman says — but only about 10% of golfers who track their handicap will regularly break 80.
  • Not a good golfer? Be a great teammate. When you’re the newbie on the team, offer to go first, says Hoffman. Your colleagues can watch to see how the ball is rolling, which will help them play better when it’s their turn. In addition, look where the ball goes when others are playing; if you can prevent your boss from searching for a ball for several minutes, you can help him save face.
  • Know when to JSFAMOIf you’re really struggling on a certain hole, it’s okay to say, “Alright, I’ve had enough fun with this hole,” and then pick up the ball, put it in your pocket, and move on.
  • If possible, take a few lessons to prepare — but not with the goal of becoming a brilliant golfer. “Pick one aspect of the game, like putting, and go out and take a couple of lessons so you’ll be really good at it,” Hoffman suggests.
  • Even if you don’t play, follow golf etiquette. “It’s absolutely fine to not play on the course” and just meet everyone at the clubhouse afterward, says Hoffman. Like Reader B mentioned, she could drive the cart and serve the beer — but “you absolutely must know the etiquette of where to drive the cart.” For that reason, Hoffman recommends taking a more experienced golfer with you. And even if you’re simply driving the cart or helping out at the registration table, you must still follow the course dress code.

Further reading:

  • Nice Girls Who Play Golf Do Get The Corner Office [Forbes]
  • How to Survive At-Work Athletic Events (When You’re Not Athletic) [The Muse]
  • I’m being penalized for not participating in monthly athletic events at work [Ask a Manager]

Have you been in similar situations at work? What did you do, and would you make the same decision again?

Picture credit: Shutterstock/Imilian.


N.B. These substantive posts are intended to be a source of community comment on a particular topic, which readers can browse through without having to sift out a lot of unrelated comments. And so, although of course we highly value all comments by our readers, we’re going to ask you to please keep your comments on topic; threadjacks will be deleted at our sole discretion and convenience. Thank you for your understanding!


  1. Bewitched :

    Kat, I am seeing/hearing Capital One audio ads and Verizon audio ads on this page.

  2. I am not sure about whether goeing to a pool party constitute’s “sports at work”, but the manageing partner has alway’s made it mandatory for us to go to his pool party, and for the women to wear bikini’s. Men do NOT have to wear speedos. I think that is b/c Frank and the manageing partner like to ooogle us women, even Madeline,who is NOT a batheing person. Frank like’s to grab us and throw us in the pool, and he get’s cheep thrill grabbeing at our boobie’s. FOOEY on Frank b/c he is MARRIED, but he does NOT bring his wife.

    The manageing partner also wanted me to go with him and the Judge GOLFING, but said I do NOT like golf, and I did NOT want them looking at my TUCHUS, partiularley when I retrieve the golf balls for the men. DOUBEL FOOEY on Men that look at my tuchus.

  3. Also audio/video ads for petco on the main page, clicking takes me here:

  4. Sydney Bristow :

    In my pre-law school career, I worked in a construction industry and was responsible for planning a golf scramble. And I’d never even played golf before! Granted, my workplace was extremely casual and there were a few people who really loved golf and were good at it but everyone was a good sport about my complete lack of ability. In my case, I’d take the initial swing on each hole or drop my ball near the cup and putt and just let everyone else in my group play the entire game. That meant that I was with my group the whole time and participating somewhat. It was actually pretty fun. nobody cared that I was awful and didn’t even bother keeping my own score.

    My office was pretty much the opposite of a professional environment, so that method may not work for everyone.

    • Actually, that’s great advice- when I was learning, that’s what I was taught to do. Drive the ball off the tee, maybe take another shot along the fairway, then pick it up and drop it off the green, pitch it on, and putt with the rest of the group. The most important thing is to not hold people up. I found other golfers to be pretty understanding, as long as I didn’t slow down the group (and the group behind them, and the group behind them . . . ;) ).

    • Coach Laura :

      This might convince me to try golf!

  5. Anonymous :

    My reaction to this whole article is I Just Don’t Want To.

    • Same.

      I am not a good athlete. I am uncoordinated and extremely self-conscious about playing sports with others, regardless of their comparable skill level. Suppose the preferred work group activity were karaoke. I love to sing and have no problem performing in front of strangers and colleagues. But would it be reasonable to expect everyone at the company to get up and sing? I feel like people would be much more understanding about refusing to participate in that situation.

      • Original B :

        This is a great example! I sometimes use pedicures or yoga as examples of group activities that perhaps not everyone would want to do, but in fact those truly are accessible to almost everyone.

    • Me too. It was just announced that my new job has an annual laser tag event coming up. I just don’t want to go so I am already formulating an excuse.

      On the plus side, they do have a minor league baseball night too. I may go to that.

  6. I played in my first golf scramble with almost zero golf experience – that’s actually how I realized I love golf! I would not suggest being the cart girl and serving the beer – it’s a bad vibe. The best way to go is to play, admit that you’re terrible, and display an excellent sense of humor about your non-skills. Ask people for tips up front! Tell them it’s your first time! People will be much nicer that you expect.

    • Yeah, the “driving the beer cart” seems weird. You’re a senior engineer, not a cocktail waitress, so don’t drive the beer cart.

      Just learn how to swing in a few lessons, tee off at every hole, and then play with the group. The whole point of a scramble is that ability level doesn’t matter. You’ll also be way better at the end of the course than you were at the beginning.

    • Anonattorney :

      I agree! It’s also one of those things that you certainly don’t have to do, but it’s a really really great way to network with other people. So, it’s much better to put the effort in and take a couple classes so you have some idea how to swing a club, than to just write it off completely. No one really cares how you play, as long as you have some basic idea about what you are doing.

      Don’t drive the beer cart. NO.

      • Original B :

        This is my feeling, too. Usually the admin assistants do it…

        However, taking a ‘couple classes’ are not cutting it for me either. See below.

    • working momz :

      Agree – do NOT volunteer to drive the cart, serve drinks or work the registration table. Unless you’re an admin.

  7. Asideralis :

    My problem with these things is that I’m waaaaay too competitive and I want to win. In fact, I won’t join most running groups because of this. I abhor losing, and take everything to do with sports personally.

    That’s why I either do solo sports or hiking. I’m learning to golf, though.

    • Anonymous :

      Yes!! That is exactly my problem. I play hard, focus on winning or trying to, get really sweaty, forget all about small talk (or scowl at people who hold up the game with it). I once beat the boss’ 11 year old daughter at hula-hooping, less than one month into a new job. If it’s a pool party, I’m likely to join the guys in a cannonball competition. I need help figuring out how to enjoy sports while not being too intense.

  8. Anonymous :

    I once worked at a firm that held weekly volleyball tournaments. They made it clear that everyone was supposed to play. They kept score, emailed the results the following week, etc. To me that always seemed inconsiderate in the extreme. They had no idea whether I or any of the other employees had a medical condition that would make running around a bad idea. Requiring physical activity like that puts employees in an awkward position. Do I tell them I have a medical condition (embarrassing, especially for a new employee, and really just completely irrelevant to my ability to do the job)? Or do I just decline to play every week and end up looking like a killjoy? Ugh.

    If it’s not a physical job, I really strongly disagree with employers requiring participation in athletic activities.

  9. Original B :

    Original question-asker here … I’m a little disappointed in the “take lessons! just swing!” answers in the original article and above. I’ve taken lessons – two different instructors, probably a total of 10 lessons – and still can not make contact with the ball most of the time on swings. I am not exaggerating. I’m sure I could learn eventually, but I really don’t want to invest significant amounts of time and money in lessons.

    Hence my question: “A lesson (or even a few lessons) are absolutely NOT enough to get me through a golf scramble. Can I swing and miss 18 times while joking gracefully?” I can tell you that I tried this at one scramble, and after about the 5th hole they asked me not to try anymore because I was holding everyone up.

    I’m not unathletic, either – although it shouldn’t matter either way. I’m a runner, backpacker, equestrian, yogini. Just not a golfer.

    • Well no, you can’t swing and miss 18 times gracefully. You can swing and miss once on a hole, laugh at yourself, pick up your ball and let the next person play. The key word in your comment is that you were holding people up. Regardless of how well or poorly you play, holding people up is going to annoy people. I think it’s a missed opportunity to remove yourself completely from the event. I think it is entirely possible to go out there with a foursome, have a good attitude about being terrible, take one swing on the first hole, miss, poke fun at yourself a bit, and then let the next person go. I wouldn’t do this on every hole. After it was obvious that I was no good, I’d probably bow out of a tee shot on most holes and just say I was going to practice my putting or whatever, and drop a ball on the green once everyone else is up there. Know your group, but get yourself in a group that understands your capabilities and your approach to it. Surely you have a few people that you are friendly with at work that will be fine having you join their foursome and pretty much just ride along.

    • orange roll :

      I’m with ya, OP. There’s no way in hell I’d actually attempt to play. I’d make a lighthearted comment to my team about being too uncoordinated to swing giant metal weapons anywhere near people I actually liked, so it’d probably be best for me to remain a cheerleader for this particular sport. Then I’d buy a cute golf outfit and just have fun riding in the carts and chatting with people for 18 holes.

    • Stormtrooper :

      I agree. No desire to golf, despite generally being up for almost anything, enjoying sports and being outdoors. I just don’t want to. I’m a lawyer who practices construction litigation. In the past, I’ve organized a non-golf event for non golfers during a golf outing, and they’ve been well received. Even some golfers just don’t want to participate in good or do something different. Consider suggesting the “outing” can include more people if there’s a spa networking function, tennis match, hike, whatever else can happen in the near vicinity as an alternative to golf.

  10. No one is great at golf without lessons and a lot of effort. Learning to play can be even more discouraging for women. Most of us can’t muscle a long drive the same way a heavier guy can (at least, at first), so we think that we’re so terrible that we’ll never improve. Fewer and fewer people grow up playing golf. If you think that you’re so bad that people are starring, your either wrong or you’re playing with total jerks.

    I live in New England and work in a very active office. I don’t run, ski, or sail, for various reasons, which limits my involvement in corporate outings. At a certain point, I had to compromise and pick golf and bowling.

  11. SteelCityMagnolia :

    I used to work for a company that was definitely an “old white boys club.” Golf was the big thing, and if you were male and didn’t play, you were definitely at a disadvantage when it came to having any sort of a career. If you were female, you were definitely not expected to play because golf was a “man’s sport, and didn’t you ladies understand that big business decisions were made on the golf course?” (That was actually said to my friend who LOVES golf, is an EXCELLENT golfer, and had asked about joining the company golf league.)

    The company also had a bowling league and when they were short on people, a couple co-workers and I decided to join. We were not told that there were several teams on the league that considered it one step shy of the Pro Bowlers Tour and if you didn’t bowl on par with them (we didn’t. We sucked at bowling, actually, but we joined to have fun and blow off some steam after work) they would get rather nasty. After one season of putting up with mean comments from people who obviously missed their calling in life and should have taken up bowling instead of engineering, I decided I had enough fun and togetherness with my co-workers and would never join any kind of company team or sports league again.

    I now work in the construction industry and this industry is BIG on golf outings. Every week a different contractor is having an outing somewhere. Fortunately, enough people here are golfers, so I don’t have any trouble finding anyone who wants to go.