Does being an athlete limit you to a career in sport?

Does being an athlete limit you to a career in sport?

In the last 12 months over 450 athletes from Australia, New Zealand and the UK have completed The CareerHQ Compass. This online tool helps individuals to explore over 1,000 careers while self-selecting 6-10 career options which they are directly interested in pursuing after sport. We have been compiling the results of this tool to explore the emerging career interests of the athletes we work with. One finding stood out to us.

8 out of the top 10 career interests of athletes are in the sports industry.

This poses an important question. Does being an athlete limit your career choices by biasing you towards the environments you are familiar with – or is there not enough exposure to the outside world to have a full appreciation of the wide range of opportunities available?

In isolation, this very much looks like athletes are ‘going with what they know’. Broader data supports this trend highlighting that 24.5% of athletes seek careers back in sports, fitness and recreation after retiring from elite sport. This is significant as it tells us that 1 in 4 individuals are choosing sport ahead of 39 considering other industries (39 is the number of other industries that are considered in The CareerHQ Compass).

So to answer the title of this blog. Being an athlete does not limit you to a career in sport, but it does make many athletes see the sports and fitness industry as the next logical step simply because it’s familiar. We are all likely to choose to be what we can see, know and are comfortable with.

After a lifetime in sport, athletes are highly exposed to different sporting industry roles and the skills needed to work in those positions. They are also likely to know who to ask through the contacts they have created as an athlete. It is a smaller leap than choosing to look into broader industries and career opportunities.

Is this such a problem I hear you say? Well, no…not if the athlete is well-suited to that role.

Many athletes make outstanding contributions back into the sporting arena. Their deep understanding of the industry and its culture bring invaluable insights to sporting and fitness organisations and they have a specialised skill set that can be easily adapted from their years of training.

On top of this, from a broader employment perspective, the sports and fitness industry in all three countries continues to grow. In Australia, sport and recreation directly employs over 100,000 people, a number that swells to 450,000 in the UK. Over the last 5 years, sport in the UK has become a more than £20bn industry.

So, if you have a passion for the sports and fitness industry and a lifestyle, skill set and mindset that is well suited your role, a career in sport could be a great option.

Well then, what’s the problem with a career in sport?

The problem is when all of the factors don’t line up. This is when we often meet athletes. They’ve had the realisation that a career in sport is not for them. What we hear often falls into four categories:

  1. I didn’t understand the realities of non-competition sporting roles.
  2. I didn’t understand how limited the positions were in sport and that they didn’t pay as well as other industries.
  3. I don’t feel like I’m suited to my role and I have never explored options outside of sport.
  4. I don’t feel like the lifestyle suits me.

Our data highlights this. The top three lifestyle considerations chosen by athletes included flexible hours, free weekends and travel. These can be difficult to achieve within a career in sport. And from a financial perspective, while the industry is growing the challenge to find full-time employment is a repeat concern for athletes transitioning into a non-professional sporting career.

In the Australian context this was demonstrated by census data highlighting that;

  • Over half (55%) of persons employed in sport and physical recreation occupations worked part-time (i.e. less than 35 hours), with 30% working 15 hours or less.
  • In line with the prevalence of part-time work, over half (60%) of persons employed received a total weekly income between $200 and $999, while only 20% received $1,000 per week or more.

This highlights that choosing to stick with what’s familiar isn’t always the easiest option. On top of this, it can also come at a price and potential opportunity and talent loss for the broader labour market. Many athletes’ skills and potential could be harnessed in a diverse range of industries.

We hope to expand the early career exploration of athletes so that they have a greater understanding of the job market and the different contexts in which they could add value so that the sporting industry becomes only one of a range of industries that athletes believe they have the ability and skills to transition into.

So, what does this mean in practical terms?

The first step is to provide opportunities for athletes to be exposed to a broader range of job roles and industries. This will allow athletes to start to articulate what they are interested in ‘trying out’. We aim to help athletes to explore this while they are still in the relative security, both financially and emotionally, of their professional sporting careers.

This, more than any other step, will set them up for a broader range of opportunities. Without this step, we often hear that athletes move straight into new careers (often in sport) without ‘testing out’ the broader range of career options that could lead them down a more fulfilling pathway.

The second step is to then support athletes through the process of research and understanding the realities of each career or industry they are interested in. Athletes, due to their often enclosed and highly scheduled lives are particularly susceptible to not having a broad exposure to a number of different jobs and industries.

This can be achieved through supporting and encouraging athletes to explore their career interests through athletes personal networks, alumni programs, sporting networks or sponsors. One of the best models we have seen comes from New Zealand, namely the Hurricanes Alumni Foundation. We provide individual and overall data on the career interests of players, which is then used to match current and recently retired athletes to both the Hurricanes Alumni (past players, coaches, support and executive) and mentors from the local business community. This benefits the athletes through mentoring, work experience, career discovery and potential jobs. It also involves past players in the family of the sporting organisation, assisting their own transitions and the building of a strong wider community.

We have also seen other organisations use the above data to create custom networking events tailored to their participants’ interests with businesses who are sourcing new talent. Programs such as these help to directly impact an individual’s career simply by expanding what jobs and industries they are conscious of, and what they see is possible for themselves.

These two steps help athletes to build vocabulary, confidence and experience that will set them up for their transition out of professional sport. They also help to inform and broaden the options that are presented to athletes, alongside sporting careers (which are equally valid). Failure to do this can often lead to athletes taking the path of least resistance into sporting careers, regardless of how much that career path suits them. It is with this understanding of the broad range of options that athletes can minimise the risk of being limited to a career in sport as the title of this suggests.

Our duty of care is to support athletes to gain a realistic understanding of the career opportunities available to them and to support learning around how to gain and maintain employment. As the search for global talent heats up this ability to bring athletes into the wider world of work offers incredible potential for organisations seeking adaptable and high functioning employees, while from the athlete’s position it offers the potential to explore new and fascinating pathways that are limited only by the level of creativity and time they spend exploring what career options are available to them.

The sky’s the limit, if athletes are willing to spend the time exploring what’s out there.

Greg Mumm

Greg is the Managing Director of The Final Whistle. He spent 10 years as a professional rugby coach working at all levels from school to international level, including assisting Fiji at both the 2007 and 2011 Rugby World Cups. He co-founded CareerHQ with his father John, a career guidance platform which helps young men and women create their own unique and fulfilling career paths.

Interests: education, leadership, family, business, coaching, values facilitation, human behaviour, rugby.

First Article: February 2016

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