With fall sports season getting into full swing, Retirement Director Sara Tegethoff Lowery considers how the strategies athletes rely on to reach their goals can translate to investing. To add a bit of healthy competition into the mix, she also discusses how female investors – despite facing a number of gender-based challenges – often come out ahead of men when it comes to being disciplined in their saving and investing practices.
The changing of the seasons always seems to bring about a palpable change in mood, especially the transition from summer to fall. It’s a time for shifting away from the laid-back attitude we’ve enjoyed over the past few months to a more disciplined mindset.
The fact that it’s back-to-school time is an obvious trigger, but I’ve always viewed fall as back-to-sports season. As high-school, college and professional players get back into their games, it’s a good time to consider how the strategies these athletes rely on can translate to investing. And the connection is all the more relevant considering the uncertainties that abound, both on the field and in the markets and economy.
Furthermore, while these strategies absolutely apply to both men and women, I’d like to view them through the lens of female investors, because there’s an interesting dynamic at play when it comes to women’s confidence with investing compared to their actual skill. For example, Merrill Lynch and Age Wave released a study that found that only 52% of women say they feel confident managing their investments, compared to 68% of men.1 Yet several studies – a few of which I’ll reference in this post – show that women are better savers and investors than men. And since I’m tying this to sports, a little healthy competition seems appropriate!
So with that, here are some techniques all investors can use to work toward their goals, even in the face of volatility, uncertainty and adversity.
Practice Makes Perfect
Athletes destined for greatness continue perfecting their sport over time. They work ceaselessly on the smallest details, such as practicing making a three-pointer over and over again. Pole vaulters raise the bar, literally, to try and achieve greater heights. It’s a risk, but it ultimately makes them better than their competition.
During periods of market volatility, it can seem risky to invest. But for retirement plan investors, market corrections can actually spell opportunity. If you’re contributing regularly to your retirement account, the dollars you invest when the market is down are buying more. When the market goes back up, you’re earning more. Consistency is the key. While it may seem risky to invest in the midst of so much uncertainty, we are perfecting our skills as investors by riding out the volatility and staying focused on the long-term outcome, not the short-term ups and downs.
This is one area where female investors come out ahead: Research has shown that women’s portfolios, on average, generate higher returns but are lower risk compared to men. That’s due in part to the fact that women tend to trade less often and are less likely to engage in risky day trading than men.2 It just goes to show how important practice, patience and discipline can be for long-term performance.
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
When I was in high school, I knew competitive swimmers who got in the pool early in the morning, hours before school started. It was cold outside and still dark, and the water was cold, but they did it to improve strength, speed and endurance.
The takeaway here is that the market isn’t always going to go up. We will experience points in time over our retirement savings cycle that are very uncomfortable. We will witness periods of extreme volatility and live through recessions. But by having the fortitude to stick to our long-term plans through these unpleasant periods, we can come out stronger on the other side.
Another strategy that can help us weather volatility is, of course, diversification. Diversifying your investments is sort of like a well-rounded athlete who mixes in cross-training to help prevent injury. By investing in different asset classes, we are holding investments that tend to react differently to the same market or economic event. If one category is going down, another may be going up.
This is a concept female investors seem to have embraced: The same study referenced above showed that women are less likely than men to put their retirement funds entirely in stocks.3 Of course, it’s important to note that no matter how well diversified your portfolio is, you can never eliminate risk entirely.
Visualization is a practice many athletes swear by to help them prepare for a game or event. By picturing themselves making that shot, sticking that landing or breaking through the finish line just ahead of the closest contender, they ease the tension ahead of the actual competition because they’ve seen themselves be successful many times over, if only in their own minds.
This technique can be applied to investing by looking at the market’s performance over a longer time period. For example, in 2000, 2008 and as recently as 2020, the markets suffered severe setbacks – but they also rebounded.
With those past rebounds in mind, imagine how you would have felt if you had pulled out of the market and missed those upticks in performance. Now imagine similar pullbacks and rebounds potentially occurring over the months, years, even decades ahead, and picture yourself staying the course through those inevitable periods of volatility. Taking this long-term perspective and visualizing your future success can help you stay on track toward your goals.
This is especially important for women, who continue to face a pay gap: In 2020, women in the U.S. earned 84% of what men earned.4 As a result, women are 80% more likely than men of facing poverty in retirement.5
On the positive side, despite earning 16% less than men, women have higher savings rates and retirement plan participation than men.6 Perhaps female investors are visualizing their future and opting to save and invest more given the challenges they see themselves facing.
Find a Great Coach
Most athletes work with a coach regularly – not just when they’re on a losing streak or need to improve. Coaches help develop training programs, critique the athlete’s form and technique, and provide encouragement and support, through good times and bad.
Investors, on the other hand, tend to seek guidance during downturns but try to go it alone when markets are up. Bull markets often make investors feel like they can do it themselves, which can lead to overconfidence.
While this attitude isn’t surprising, I’d venture to say that working with a financial professional is perhaps even more important when the market is up. That’s when it’s easiest to take on too much risk, try to time the market or fall into one of many behavioral traps that can derail our long-term investing plans. Furthermore, it’s precisely the long-term aspect of investing that makes it so important to maintain an ongoing relationship with your financial professional, so that he or she can help you adjust your allocations as your needs, goals and the markets change over time.
Unfortunately, this is an area where women tend to lag behind men. A recent survey shows that, when asked why they don’t use a financial professional, 33% of women said it was because they can do it themselves, compared to 42% of men who said the same.7 But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this reluctance could be due to the fact that women have long been disregarded by the financial planning industry, as I discussed in a recent blog post.
Define Your Goal
We all want to have a comfortable retirement. That means saving enough and making the right asset allocation decisions based on our risk tolerance. But it also means setting smaller goals along the way. Because when we set these small, more immediately attainable goals and achieve them, they provide an incentive to keep working toward something bigger.
Now, even though it’s fall, allow me to reminisce about summer for a moment – specifically, about the women’s U.S. Olympic Team.
If the U.S. women’s team had been their own country, they would have placed fourth overall with their own medal count. These athletes demonstrated what it means to persevere through tremendous uncertainty and pressure. Despite having to wait an additional year to compete, they continued the process of getting stronger, faster, and better enough to compete on the world stage in Tokyo.
I think we should all hold on to that memory of the Summer Olympics as a source of inspiration as we face the uncertainty that lies ahead. We need not let it stand in the way of our goals. And for all my fellow female investors out there, I encourage you to continue leading the way, saving at higher levels compared to our male counterparts and staying the course in our long-term investment strategies.
1“Women & Financial Wellness: Beyond the Bottom Line.” Merrill Lynch. May 2020.
2“Female investors often beat men.” CNN. February 2015.
4“Gender pay gap in U.S. held steady in 2020.” Pew Research. May 2021.
5“Women 80% More Likely to be Impoverished in Retirement.” National Institute on Retirement Security. 2016.
6“A Summary of 20 Years of Research and Statistics on Women in Investing.” Motley Fool. August 2021.
7“U.S. Bank survey says women are leaving money and influence on the table.” U.S. Bank. March 2020.