Athletes train to be tough. Sporting history is littered with stories of athletes overcoming great adversity, injury and setback, to not just compete, but achieve the extraordinary, appearing almost superhuman. Broken jaws in the first minute of a contest, broken hands in round 1 of a boxing fight, carrying ligament and muscle damage for the majority of a season – we have all heard the stories.
Athletes talk of never being 100% right, or always carrying some form of injury. With this, core skills such a resilience, performing under pressure and resourcefulness through finding solutions, not excuses, are all developed and are finely tuned during their athletic career and it can lead to an ability to focus more effectively on the task at hand. It is an exercise in self-awareness and understanding what, as a person, they are truly capable of. It shows sacrifice is willing to be made to achieve a goal. You could easily apply all of these skills and attributes to work life, social life and family life.
But what happens when the structures around this – the support networks, the common goal – are taken away? Does the ability to focus remain, or do distractions and ‘niggles’ start to get in the way? How can that focus and discipline be maintained?
Let me digress for a moment.
As an athlete moves through the stages of their sporting career, the landscape of their environment changes. Athlete transition can be applied, not just to the end of an athlete’s career, but to different stages during their career. When leaving school to go to university or sporting academies, their support networks, familiar environments and structures can be taken away. It is the same for any young person when leaving school, but throw on top of that the pressures of training, competing and all that goes with the life of an aspiring or newly professional athlete, and it can be incredibly daunting.
These pressures are highlighted by stats released last year by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the USA. Across the main professional sports, transition from high school to professional athlete is less than 1%. From collegiate level to professional athlete, baseball is the only sport with a greater than 2% chance of making it fully professional from collegiate level (U.S athletes only). In fact, aside from baseball, less than 0.1% of high school athletes become professionals. On top of this, the average lifespan of a professional athlete is between 3 and 5 years. Not very long.
These of course only apply to main US professional sports, NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS, however similar statistics are seen with the conversion of academy players of English Premier League football clubs. Only around 1% of players in youth set-ups will go on to play football for a living.
That’s a small number to put all your eggs in one basket. That’s a lot of pressure!
The reason I highlight these statistics is to show that the life of a professional sportsperson is far from clear-cut, with significant variance in experiences, longevity and success. Throw injuries into the mix and a sports career becomes even more uncertain. However, these skills that I mentioned have not been developed or applied any less, just differently and with varying influence of outside factors. An athlete who doesn’t quite make it to the very top may have had to apply greater resilience and sacrifice to simply remain in contention.
It is out of this, though, the combination of skill, hard-work, dedication and sacrifice, that champions are made. So it’s no surprise that athletes are able to block out pain and injury to push on and succeed. The same applies for overcoming more serious injury setbacks, to get back out on the track or field.
But injuries and managing them can be equally as stressful, highlighted by the fickle nature of professional sport. It can be a reminder to an athlete that they are human, that they are not indestructible, and that the life of a professional sportsperson can be fleeting. It can leave an athlete feeling vulnerable.
This is where dual pathways come in.
Here, the US system is clearly at an advantage, as the majority of athletes spend their athletic career at educational institutions. Having something else away from sport to concentrate on can help manage anxiety and manage pressure felt. It can even help recharge the batteries FOR sport and help complement on-field performance. At the recent Crossing the Line Summit on athlete transition in Sydney, Olympic gold medallist rower Kim Brennan spoke exactly of this. Whilst embarking on a legal career, Kim thought she was preparing for life after sport, but found it was just as important to her sports career and said more than anything it helped with her performance.
Kim is not alone, at the recent Rio Games, 42% of athletes for the Australian Team were students, but accounted for 63% of the medals.
Often supremely confident in their athletic pursuits, athletes can lack this same self-assuredness outside of sport. Dual pathways help to address this problem. It allows an athlete to build confidence in their life outside of sport, providing the platform to give the athlete every chance of having a more successful transition. Again to quote Kim Brennan, “It’s challenging going from being the best in the world at something to being really crap at something else, and finding you are 10 years behind your peers. I wouldn’t change that, but it does put you in a different situation to your peers.’’
By not taking advantage of dual pathways, athletes run the risk of not utilising the skills they have developed and being able to apply them to a post-sport career. Gaining clarity around what works for them and what they can apply themselves to, will go a long way to ensuring, that once the structures, support networks and a common goal are taken away, they have the knowledge that what they are pursuing has a clear foundation.
Those skills that help an athlete compete despite injury – resilience, performing under pressure and resourcefulness – have a better chance of being applied effectively. The athlete has worked to explore their options, learnt how they can apply their skills and why their skills are suited to the options they have chosen. These same skills will help an athlete deal with other setbacks that will undoubtedly come along the way. Instead of injury, it may be missing a sale, not getting a promotion or even not being successful in getting a job. However, the next challenge can be approached with calm and focus.
Professional sport can certainly still be the priority. It’s not a matter of replacing Plan A – but complementing Plan A by having a Plan B. Even then, it doesn’t need to be a Plan B, but simply something else to focus on, apply oneself to, knowing that skills are being developed that can apply to sport and beyond.
But going back to where I started, what happens when the confines of professional sport is taken away, how do the drive and focus remain when bumps or setbacks come along?
As mentioned, having a Plan B can help with performance during sport and preparation for life after sport, but it has to be the right plan. Taking time to go through the process of figuring out what is important to the athlete, how this can be applied outside of sport and not restricting your options. Using their time as an athlete, they can explore career and study options, understand what is available, experience those options and determine what is best for them, so that by the time it comes to retire, they have found their next challenge to which they can apply their highly developed skill set.
This doesn’t have to be education, but can be work experience, networking, or any other activity that is going to help prepare them for what they want to do. If an athlete is able to give themselves a number of options to go and explore whilst they are still competing, they are more likely to figure out what actually does suit them and what they are good at.
So when those bumps and niggles do come along, there is a sound foundation in place, with the knowledge they are working to achieve a goal they have set themselves and have done the necessary preparation. You never know, they might even exceed the achievements of their sporting career.