How do we support the 75% of athletes interested in careers outside of sport?

How do we support the 75% of athletes interested in careers outside of sport?

This article follows on from one we published a couple of weeks ago titled ‘Does being an athlete limit you to a career in sport’. The article looked at the work we have been doing to help athletes develop career options, uncovering that 8 out of the top 10 careers chosen by athletes are back in the sports industry.

This result challenged us to ask an important question. Are athletes choosing a career in sport because it is their best career option or because it is what they know?

For many athletes, a continued career within sport offers enormous possibilities and it’s an industry in which they derive a strong sense of meaning and pleasure.

However, after we noted this strong interest in sport, the data that we collected from working with athletes in Australia, New Zealand and England also highlighted that over 75% of athletes have career interests that lie outside of sport. So how do these athletes step out of their comfort zone and develop post-sport careers in these areas, and how can we assist them?

Where does the 75% figure come from?

Well, it comes from assessing the top three career choices of over 450 athletes who have completed the CareerHQ Compass in the past 12 months.

But first…in order to truly understand the story behind the data, a brief background is necessary.

The CareerHQ Compass is an online tool that helps individuals to explore over 900 careers while self-selecting 6 to 10 career options which they are interested in pursuing. The tool can be used by anyone, not just athletes.

Within the CareerHQ Compass, we compare four pieces of data from the athletes’ responses;

  1. Personal Interest Profiles – Holland Codes
  2. Career Categories – The industries from which athletes are choosing their preferred careers
  3. Career Choices – Jobs by title
  4. Lifestyle considerations – Priorities from an elimination tree of 24 options to select their top four

Together, these pieces of information give us both an assessment of athlete’s career interests and a snapshot of the careers athletes are selecting themselves.

Holland Codes – and the careers they suggest athletes could be suited to

This personality test – developed by psychologist John Holland – divides both the labour market and individuals into six categories including:

  1. Realistic
  2. Investigative
  3. Artistic
  4. Social
  5. Enterprising, and
  6. Conventional.

These are commonly referred to as Holland Codes and each of us expresses a unique combination of these six personality types. As with most profiling tools, they are objectively tested in the first section of our career tool.

When looking at the Holland Code types of the athletes who completed the CareerHQ Compass in 2017, an interesting mix of results emerged. Presented in the below picture, over 77% of athletes fitted into the three categories of Social, Enterprising or Realistic personality types. Most prominent was the Social personality type which is associated with roles that have a strong social or helping purpose such as jobs healthcare and community roles.

Holland Code Results

So what you’re probably asking is, “Why do these matter?”

Well, these results challenge us to think more deeply about the answer athletes give us and the guidance we give them. It also prompts us to ask whether there is something about the sporting environment shaping any difference between the objective career assessment and the careers athletes choose for themselves.

What careers are athletes choosing for themselves?

In the CareerHQ Compass, while we present careers for athletes to consider in order of their Holland Code profiles, athletes have the freedom to choose their own careers to create their personalised shortlist. By using this information, we are able to create a snapshot in real-time of career interests and industry trends.

The results tell an interesting story and raise both challenges and opportunities in terms of how we support the development of these interests alongside elite sporting careers.

When looking at the results of the careers chosen by athletes themselves, a clear winner emerged.

Enterprising Careers

As per our last article, the Sport, Fitness & Recreation sector is a clear winner with nearly 1 in 4 athletes choosing careers from this industry.

However, below that, there is a broad range of interests in this category including; Business Management; Banking and Financial services; Administration and Office Support; and Sales, Marketing and Communication.

What is encouraging for athletes is that in these work environments there is already considerable work being done by industry and education providers to create bridging opportunities that give athletes access to these careers, both while competing and after retirement from professional sport. For many athletes, there is a great match of their personal attributes and skills from sport with the varied opportunities and roles in this space.

One key observation is, despite the Holland Code assessment suggesting that only 27% of athletes are suited to careers in this category, when given the freedom to choose their own options, 47% of athletes’ career choices were selected from this field.

This result may be due to the professionalism of sport and the corporate attention athletes attract, especially in the social media age. It is not uncommon now for athletes to be advised on ‘creating their brand’ or to ‘treat their career like a business’, leveraging social media for commercial benefit, and also using their profile to benefit them in the business world.

Now, let’s ask an important question

Do athletes select these careers because they are what they are suited to or because they are the careers they are exposed to and seem most easily accessible to them?

One factor to be considered here is that a broad range of the qualifications required for many roles within this category can be delivered flexibly, with business courses, in particular, being available in short course form or online. This can be a huge incentive for athletes who have training and travel requirements that make other qualifications more difficult.

All in all when we look at these results four key points come to mind:

  • Whilst enterprising careers offer short-term solutions to many athletes, some personalities may be a better fit in other industries.
  • Are some athletes lured down this road because it’s all they have been exposed to and the most readily available?
  • Does this trend present any long-term risks to those athletes?
  • Can organisations help to support broader educational and industry partnerships that might make the move into other work environments equally appealing?

Business and educational providers in these areas should be commended for their work in identification and development of athletic talent. They have taken the ball and run with it, as such.

So how can other industries compete and what can sporting organisations, educational institutions and employers do to gain and develop the interest of athletes?

When you look into the remaining 53% of career interests, they included:

  • 15.9% of athletes being interested in Realistic careers (likes to work with animals, tools or machines in roles such as trades and services, engineering, construction and transport and logistics).
  • 13.7% of athletes being interested in Social careers (likes to do things to help people in roles such as healthcare, medical, community and social services).
  • 11.3% of athletes being interested in Artistic careers (likes to do creative activities in roles such as media, digital media, design, advertising and the arts).
  • 8.9% of athletes being interested in Investigative careers (like to study and solve maths and science in roles include agribusiness, mining, energy, science, technology and the environment).
  • 4.9% of athletes being interested in Conventional careers (like to work with numbers, records or machines in an orderly way in roles including government, defence, real estate and customer service).

These figures offer a valuable insight for those working to create a broader range of dual performance pathways for athletes

The first of the primary takeaways is that access to industry matters. We choose to pursue careers we know. If athletes spend the majority of their time surrounded by sport and are linked to companies who are centred around enterprising industries, will athletes be more likely to show a continued preference for these options?

What can other work environments learn from this insight? If other industries wish to increase their athlete talent pool they must focus on developing greater exposure to (and opportunities for) athletes to transition into their industry. One of the greatest opportunities when looking at the results appears in the social sector where only 13.7% of athletes selected a career. This is despite the Holland Code assessment suggesting up to 30% of athletes could be suited to opportunities in these industries.

A further takeaway is that access to flexible education matters. When comparing the different pathways into careers, the ability for educational providers to be athlete-friendly appears to be a significant variable. For example, a range of Realistic (engineering, education, construction and transport), Social (medicine and healthcare) and Investigative careers (science, technology, consulting, mining and agribusiness) can have less flexible timing and participation requirements, meaning that these careers are often deemed unsuitable to fit around training and competing.

While educational pathways into careers such a medicine and engineering are unlikely to ever become as flexible as a business degree, allowing athletes to gain an insight into these industries, or to source career sponsorship or dual pathway opportunities could benefit both athlete and industry alike.

Lastly, athletes seem to go where their transferable skills and profile are most valued. The sports industry and roles in business are the most easily identifiable contexts in which the profile of an athlete is often clearly stated. As practitioners and potential employers assisting athletes, how can we ensure athletes understand the full range of industries their skills might apply to? There seems to be no shortage of businesses who are willing to hire ‘star power’ for their own commercial gain – which is fine – but how do we ensure the athlete is considering the long-term impact of these opportunities in line with their broader career objectives?

Creating programs that allow athletes to investigate a range of career options during the relative safety of their competitive careers, allows the exploration and creation of long-term career paths. This process of researching options in supportive environments provides athletes with the confidence and skills to evaluate both short-term and long-term career opportunities, and make informed decisions for their futures.

One organisation doing just this is the England Institute of Sport (EIS) through their, Performance Lifestyle Programme, with whom we have been privileged to work and help them to explore how they can encourage wider and more personalised career exploration for their athletes. The following is a case study from our work with them.

The EIS is the largest provider of sport science, medicine and technology services in England, delivering performance-impacting solutions to Olympic and Paralympic sports through a nationwide network of expertise and facilities.

Team GB athletes before the 2016 Rio Olympics
Team GB athletes before the 2016 Rio Olympics

Case Study: English Institute of Sport, Performance Lifestyle Programme


After the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics, we supported the Athletes Futures event in Coventry. Athletes Futures is open to all past and current athletes on UK Sport’s World Class Programme dating back as far as 1997. It is run by the EIS and UK Sport, the nation’s high performance sports agency investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport.

This event saw over 300 athletes attend with over 50 big businesses in attendance including Aldi, Camelot, Adecco, Halfords and Goldman Sachs, on Tuesday 1 November 2016. Ahead of attending, athletes who were looking for assistance with career direction used the CareerHQ Compass to organise their thinking and create a career shortlist. This helped them to get the most out of the event while feeding back information into the organisation around what were the industries and careers of choice that interested them. This is a vital piece of information that could then be used at the next careers event to make sure a broad range of industries and jobs were widely represented.

Towards Tokyo

With renewed energy to support athletes holistically, the EIS is now using the CareerHQ Compass to support their Performance Lifestyle practitioners in their athlete career development work. On an individual basis, athletes can use the CareerHQ Compass online wherever they are training or competing, and then follow up with their Performance Lifestyle practitioner for feedback and advice. As organisations, the EIS and UK Sport can use the data to ensure that they are meeting the career development needs of their athletes on a personalised level.

EIS Top Industries

Key Observations

  • The EIS footprint is slightly different to the global footprint
  • Sport is still the dominant Industry of choice, but the data shows a higher interest in Artistic careers, specifically in Media/Digital Media
  • Again, 75% of career interests fall within three main Holland code areas

What you can’t see in this data is that through the EIS Performance Lifestyle team’s work, we have also identified different career interest footprints between sports. This can be based on a wide range of factors, but makes sense when taking into consideration the different social and cultural histories of each sport, and the skills, personality traits and different behavioural strengths that different sports experience.

How the EIS is using this to develop a world-leading careers programme

The EIS is hoping to encourage each of their 1,400 aspiring Olympic and Paralympic athletes to use this program before the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. This has a range of benefits to the athlete and the organisation;

  • Each athlete will have a record of their personal career interests and receive individual support on developing these options.
  • The organisation will have the collective data on their athletes’ careers interests, across the whole organisation, and specific to individual sports. This allows the Performance Lifestyle team to create tailored programmes using the data to ensure they meet their athletes’ needs and are responding to the broader career interests of athletes.
  • It allows them to plan events, both large and small, to create tangible connections between athletes, education and industry, work experience and potential employment, both during professional sport and into retirement. They can do this on either a geographic basis, individual sport basis, or across the entire squad. This means that rather than just running an amazing event once every Olympic and Paralympic cycle, they can create boutique events, based specifically on athletes’ interests, and invite companies and experts to add targeted value to their athletes.

Final Summary

For the 75% of athletes who voice an interest in a career outside of sport, it is important that the support and infrastructure are set up to make the transition as smooth as possible. If our results highlight anything, it is that as humans we are likely to choose the path of least resistance and of the greatest support. For the majority of industries outside of business and sport, and to sporting organisations, this is a call to action to reflect on how your organisations are set up to include or exclude athletes who, whilst currently juggling multiple commitments, are often tremendous assets to any group.

On an individual level, it is also an encouragement for athletes to keep exploring. The transferable skills that you have developed over the lifespan of your career are invaluable to a broader range of industries than are often presented to you. We encourage you to start exploring the expansive world of work that is open to you, particularly whilst you have the support of development staff and athlete-friendly businesses and educators.

In sport, we understand that stepping outside our comfort zone is the key to improved performance. Bringing the same approach to your career exploration is likely to be just as rewarding.

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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