Do Sports Coaches face the same transition challenges as athletes?

Do Sports Coaches face the same transition challenges as athletes?

A common quote in athlete transition is the notion that “athletes die twice” – once when they retire from sport and the second at the end of their life. Does this mean that Sports Coaches potentially die three times?

Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with the sensational language of the phrase above, I have experienced transition challenges in both my retirement from sport as an athlete and then again as a coach. The reason coaching parallels athlete experiences is that the demands of professional coaching these days are equally obsessive as those on players, at times greater.

What’s more, for many athletes, coaching is sort of purgatory between the end of their careers and life after sport, a perceived refuge from retirement, chosen often because of a lack of other options. This means that many transition challenges are left unresolved from playing into coaching rather than being properly addressed, with coaching more the path of least resistance than a real evaluation of the best long-term match to an individual’s career opportunities?

Dual Pathway Career Mistakes For Athletes & Coaches

Take my own career as a case in point. I was ruled out at the age of 20 after 3 major knee operations and had coached for 2 years already as a way of staying involved in the game during my rehab. After I got my tap on the shoulder (literally a tap while walking to training one day), coaching was the glue that held me together as I started and failed to finish a Commerce Degree, then a Law Degree, whilst working in bars, gyms and plant nurseries as I endured 3 more knee operations chasing my dream of playing.

Ironically, I had been developing this dual pathway coaching career without realising it, for probably 3 years before being offered my first paid position at 21. Straight away this was my salvation; I could coach my way to redemption and accolades, stay around the team and experience the same connection and validation I had as a player.

And it worked, for a while…for 10 years in fact. I had a hugely enjoyable career, worked with amazing athletes and colleagues and got to achieve many of the goals I had aspired to as an athlete, including being involved in two Rugby World Cups (with Fiji). But, at 32, the same approximate age that many athletes are facing transition, I was ready for a new challenge, and it was then that I made the same mistake as I had as an athlete.

As an athlete – I had good marks at school, but never properly researched the best course for me. As a coach, I had gained qualifications alongside coaching but had failed to research or experience the career I thought I would enter after coaching. Caught up in the bubble of elite sport, I assumed that qualifications alone would protect me and that an intended teaching career would be a similarly rewarding and appropriate career for me, only to find after 6 months in the classroom that it was just not me. As the saying goes, “Assumption is the mother of all stuff-ups” and I had made the same mistake twice.

Former England rugby coach, Clive Woodward, transitioned from a successful business career into coaching and performance and then back again
Former England rugby coach, Clive Woodward, transitioned from a successful business career into coaching and performance and then back again

Unique Transition Challenges For Coaches

On top of the traditional challenges of getting caught up in the atmosphere of elite sport, coaches do have some unique contributing factors which contribute to their transition process;

  1. Time commitments – coaches will generally have greater time commitments than athletes, making study and work experience difficult around training and travel. If athletes have training-free time, coaches are usually reviewing footage of their own or opposition performance, planning sessions or recruiting. They have the same travel commitments and often similar appearance commitments including media.
  2. Performance mindset – many coaches have playing backgrounds and have gone straight from playing into the coaching arena. Their focus – and therefore identity – is tied to performance, and often they live and die by it more than the players do. Coaches are often held accountable for performance over players (rightly so), but this means performance is paramount and preparation for life after coaching not so.
  3. Support – from my experience, coaches have far less support and assistance than the athlete members in the same organisation. This is a generalisation, but study scholarships, career advice, financial advice and many other services are offered as standard welfare to players, often through players associations, yet are seldom accessed by coaching staff.

As such, for any coach who chooses to or is forcibly retired (a diplomatic way of saying sacked), the transition experience can be much the same as athletes.

Coaching Identity v Employment Identity

There is one exception to this rule in that coaches, specifically support coaches, will quite often have public profiles that are significantly smaller than the athletes they coach. This can lessen the immediate impact of everyone knowing you are no longer involved in elite sport, but it also lessens their ability to leverage their profile into alternative positions or career paths.

For many coaches, the team brand is effectively their brand – great if the team has gone well, not so great if it’s been a tough season or that franchise has been hit by a recent scandal. For this reason, it is extremely important that coaches develop their own identity and value alongside sport for life after coaching.

In our work, we have recently started talking to employers about matching athletes to available positions in some of the top industries and companies around town through our MATCH program, and what we have found is that there is a healthy appetite for the talent of coaching staff in equal levels to that for athlete talent itself.

Why? Because coaches have proven managerial skills that are more immediately transferable to different settings.

Coaching competencies that are desirable in the general employment market:

  • Communication and management skills;
  • Collaboration in high performance environments;
  • Decision-making under pressure;
  • Accountability for roles and responsibilities;
  • An ability to prioritise what needs to be done.

All of these traits make coaches desirable in the employment marketplace, and when coupled with the reality that their relationship to a regular job or business is more closely aligned to the norm relative to athletes – they can be ideal candidates for the right role.

Springbok Sevens Rugby coach, Neil Powell, has transitioned straight from playing to coaching and met with incredible success already.
Springbok Sevens Rugby coach, Neil Powell, has transitioned straight from playing to coaching and met with incredible success already.

From Coach's Box To Corporate Suite

However – there is an assumption that I incorrectly made, which was that knowing which role was right for you was possible without experiencing it first-hand prior to the moment of necessity. Coaches, like athletes, must find ways to invest in networking, mentoring conversations and experiences in work environments that challenge them and allow them to research other interests outside of sport. Often they have much to share and many businesses would love the opportunity to provide a contextual understanding of their business for some insights into the management styles in the world of elite sports.

Coaches just need to understand how to shape these situations to be reciprocal rather than viewing them as just a knowledge dump from high performance sport to business and not the other way around. Having spent some time in the world of business now, the learnings to take back to coaching are immense, particularly in this new age of innovative thought and design thinking. In certain industries, it is highly possible that the business processes to elicit new performance outcomes are ahead of those in the elite sports field.

Professional Development Can Improve Performance Development

For individual coaches and the organisations that employ them, this needs to be viewed as a performance-supporting activity. Done correctly, it can broaden professional development, create identity away from on-field performance to help insulate coaches from the highs and lows of the profession, and provide new ways of thinking to re-invigorate the coaching and performance culture of the sporting organisation.

Many coaches I came through the ranks with gave up on their coaching passion because of the instability of coaching careers and the lack of professional or personal support. Developing coaches in this way could support longevity in their chosen sport by investing in the person as well as the performance, the same way that athlete welfare is starting to be viewed.

Overall, whether you want to continue your career in coaching, or whether you are looking for your next challenge, developing identity and self-worth outside of the sporting environment can not only strengthen your toolkit for coaching but resource yourself for opportunities beyond sport.

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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