Many elite athletes when considering their success in sport, can probably tell you that it didn’t always come easy… in fact it usually comes at a price.
When training for the Olympics, United States Gold Medallist Michael Phelps trained 25-30 hours per week. During his 2008 interview with NBC, Phelps quoted “Eat, sleep and swim. That’s all I can do.”
Countless hours of training and competing, often come with great sacrifices. Athletes surrender time, relationships, education, and other opportunities outside of sport, just to name a few.
So, what happens when your athletic career comes to an end? Whether voluntary or involuntary, are you prepared to make the transition into a career that doesn’t include a warmup and cooldown? If this thought scares you, it’s ok, you’re not the only one.
Former Professional Footballer and head of player welfare at the PFA, Michael Bennett says,“It is hard for footballers to think about life after sport when week in, week out you’ve got a battle on your hands to hold down a position”. He added:“It’s constant – players are told what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep.”
Many elite athletes find career termination a tough pill to swallow. Experiences can include a loss of status, identity crisis, and loss of direction and focus, in some cases leading to substance abuse, self-harm, and depression (Ungerleider, 1997).
England Rugby former Captain Catherine Spencer speaks on retirement, “Then suddenly it feels as if you’re not needed on the top of that mountain and you plummet to the bottom. You don’t know where you’re going or how to look up. Your whole being is almost taken away from you.”
But what if I told you that your experiences as an elite athlete actually has the potential to give you a competitive advantage in environments outside of sport? Yes, your life-skills developed throughout your sporting career are not only intangible skills, that many organisations see great value in, but the consistent application during training and competition has assisted in the disciplining of these skills and strengthening them to make them very appealing to the world outside sport.
Life skills are mental, emotional, social, and behavioural attributes. They are learned or refined through sport participation and have the potential to be transferred beyond sports settings (Gould & Carson, 2007). Examples include but are not limited to:
(Danish et al, 1993)
Upon reflection, are any of these skills familiar to you? Do any personally resonate with your own athletic experience? If so, we’re off to a good start!
Well, there are actually several studies on traits and skills that link to business success. These qualities include the need for achievement, innovativeness, “proactive personality”, generalised self-efficacy, stress tolerance, need for autonomy, high degree of self-control, and risk (Collins & Porras, 2005). Articles have been written to help business professionals maximise their potential by comparing them to Olympic athletes. Some of these comparable qualities include supreme grit and courage to fight until the end, an appetite for feedback and critique, seeking situations to be pushed by other elite performers, planning out paths for long-term goals, maintaining an inner focus, and self-direction (Kerr et al, 2017).
Professional development expert Dale Carnegie once said,“Knowledge isn’t power unless it is applied.”
It is only by becoming aware of these life skills and understanding how they are not only transferable, but contain immense value beyond a sporting scope, can athletes apply them through preparation, process, and continuation of career transition, all to give them a competitive edge beyond sport.(McKnight et al, 2009).
Give yourself time to reflect on your athletic experience, what have you gone through that has strengthened you as a person? What strengths and abilities have you acquired? Has your role and responsibilities as an elite athlete given you immense leadership ability? Maybe your experience of academies, trials, and multiple contracts, has given you resilience and the ability to perform under pressure.
Having trouble getting the ball rolling? Ask people who know you well, they may be able to provide perspective and insight that you don’t see.
It’s very important to understand the similarities between elite sport and environments outside of sport. People, process, purpose, values, etc. have all been things that elite athletes are constantly exposed to, and a lot of the same variables apply to other contexts. Start to bridge the gaps in your mind and get excited about what’s to come. For example, how have you grown to develop successful relationships with your teammates? Developing relationships is a critical skill in many areas of life which can then be transferred from sport in to different environments. Once you can then identify what the transferable skills are, and how you applied them within your sport, you can start to build on how these can be transferred in to new settings.
What have you enjoyed doing in your free time outside of sport? What questions do you find yourself asking? Did you have favourite subjects in school? Did you have any dreams that you put on hold while in your athletic career? Maybe you still have a passion to remain involved in your sport, have you thought about coaching? Scouting? Many athletes seek competitive drive and goal-setting, and therefore choose to pursue careers involved in the business and finance sector. Don’t be afraid to visit career fairs and attend workshops. You don’t have an obligation to commit, just dip your feet in the water!
Once you’ve developed a clear idea of your potential career paths; research, research, research. What qualifications do you need to attain? What are the steps? Is there a timeline for it? Gain a clear understanding of the occupation. Contact professionals in the potential career and ask them about the job, how they got it, if they have any advice for you. Try to make sure that you’ve gained a clear understanding of the occupation and its demands before pursuing it.
It’s also important to understand that although your intangible skills and behaviours have potential to transfer in to success in new industries, you are in new competition, up against people who are industry qualified. You should be prepared to work hard and educate yourself in these new areas. Then, your intangibles have the potential to thrive even more.
Network yourself as a former elite athlete, use the platform and people that you know to start building bridges and making connections. Start attending networking events in your city and keep contact with former retired athletes that you know. Think about how you can build you CV or create a LinkedIn profile. Athlete Network is a social networking and job search platform that helps athletes and organisations connect, also using a data driven algorithm to match you to companies based on traits and culture. To help you in the process, utilise resources like interview training, seminars, educational modules, workshops, individual counselling, or referral networking (Stambulovaet al, 2009). And don’t forget, your story as an elite athlete can inspire others, so be courageous to tell your story even when you are networking, you never know who might take real interest.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and guidance from friends, family, and mentors. Are you close with your coaches? Ask them about their experience in career transition, you may find helpful advice or support.
There are a number of organisations who understand that the career termination can be difficult and seek to support and/or hire elite athletes undergoing career transition. To name a few: