In our previous articles at The Final Whistle, we have often spoken about the benefits of hiring athletes, of dual pathways to help develop the athlete and the person, and of how athletes make excellent employees. However, for those athletes that are still competing, what can companies do to support the person and not just the athlete, to help both during their sporting career and to help prepare them for their life after sport? Additionally, what are the considerations for companies when looking to support their athletic pursuits?
Different athletes will have different requirements. Some may be searching for work experience, to help build their career outside of sport so as to prepare for their athletic retirement. Others may need to work to support themselves, financially or otherwise, as well as build their in-and-out-of-sport careers.
So what are the ways that companies can help support elite athletic pursuits and careers and what other considerations are there for a company when looking to support an athlete?
Sponsorship, and not just in the traditional sense, is a great way to support the dual pathway athlete. As the corporate dollar, well, just any dollar, gets squeezed tighter and tighter in the current climate, companies may simply not be able to justify spending the cash on a sponsorship deal. However, alternative sponsorship could come in the form of work experience, expertise or even some form of employment, where there is a more obvious and immediate return on investment.
Through this level of engagement, athletes provided help in this way will perhaps be greater ambassadors for the company, as they feel connected and invested. Athletes may even feel a greater sense of appreciation, as the company is showing an interest in them as a person and their development, and not just as a commodity.
The modern working landscape is changing rapidly as it is. Companies with flexible working arrangements are becoming increasingly more common, with set times to be in the office becoming a thing of the past in many sectors. Essentially, the main policy is – as long as you get the work done, you can choose what hours you spend in the office.
There are of course other considerations, but the main rule will always be to get the work done. This type of arrangement would, of course, be ideal for any elite athlete trying to be flexible around their training and competition schedules. However, it will vary significantly from athlete to athlete. It’s important to for the company to know what they are getting. A highly driven, motivated individual, who can contribute to the long-term success of the company.
Consideration also needs to be given to the fluctuating and differing needs of athletes over time. A fantastic example of this is Ernst & Young’s and their employee, Gwen Jorgensen. At last year’s Olympics in Rio, Gwen won a Gold Medal in the Triathlon. The story is even more unique, as when Gwen started at E&Y in 2010, she had never even competed in a triathlon. As Gwen did enter the world of triathlon, and realised she was pretty good, she was fortunate enough that her employer allowed her a more flexible work environment.
It eventually got to the point where Gwen had to focus completely on triathlon and had to part ways with E&Y – however, from reports, with the best of wishes and understanding. I don’t know for sure, but there is little doubt in my mind that there would be an option to return at some point, if she so desired – especially as Gwen has built experience within E&Y and there is already a trust and an understanding of capabilities.
Of course, every company is different, so it is impossible to ask the same from every single employer. However, no doubt, a little understanding and flexibility may be an investment for the medium- to the long-term benefit of the company.
3. Work experience
Work experience is a fantastic way in which companies can support athlete career development. I have already alluded to work experience above, however, it goes beyond simply being a supplementary factor to sponsorship. It can be an invaluable part of an athlete’s non-sporting development.
One of the most common problems we hear from sporting organisations is difficulty finding suitable work experience opportunities for their athletes. The benefit of work experience is it can cover the full spectrum of athlete: from aspiring to elite, from highly paid professionals to semi-pros. It is an easy, cost-effective way of an athlete being exposed to an industry or sector of interest. I won’t delve too far into the intricacies of work experience, as I am sure most of us know what it involves, but it is essentially a way for the company and athletes to get exposure to one another. A ‘try before you buy’ policy – to put it crudely – on both accounts, with athletes experiencing the company and culture and gaining some diversity on their sport-laden resumé, and the organisation able to get access to a potential source of talent, whom they can develop and, if appropriate, incorporate into the business. If done well and managed well, it can be an extremely rewarding experience for both parties.
I won’t delve too far into the intricacies of work experience, as I am sure most of us know what it involves, but it is essentially a way for the company and athletes to get exposure to one another. A ‘try before you buy’ policy – to put it crudely – on both accounts, with athletes experiencing the company and culture and gaining some diversity on their sport-laden resumé, and the organisation able to get access to a potential source of talent, whom they can develop and, if appropriate, incorporate into the business. If done well and managed well, it can be an extremely rewarding experience for both parties.
Most importantly, any company who is able to provide work experience for an athlete, particularly if an athlete has expressed an interest in the sector, is helping them to continue to prepare for life after sport, to help build their identity away from sport and hopefully, ultimately lead to a better outcome for athletes in retirement, irrespective of whether they end up working for the company or not. Knowing what you don’t want to do is equally as valuable as knowing what you do want to do.
Of course, if the company ends up employing the dual pathway athlete on a more permanent basis, all the better.
Again, companies need to be flexible here, given the extremely variable schedules that some athletes do have. It may only mean that athletes are able to come in once a week, fortnight, month or they may even be away for long periods of the year. However, any time is valuable time and it is a much more flexible way for a company to engage and develop athletes, without committing to employment.
4. Social Capital
So far I have mainly focused on the ways in which companies can engage athletes to provide positive outcomes for both. But what about other considerations for companies when supporting athletes?
During their sporting careers, athletes strive to be the best, to be at the top of their game. A big part of their identity is wrapped up in their sport and they are often very comfortable engaging with those around them who are associated to their sport. When taken out of this environment, it can be quite confronting for an athlete. As Kim Brennan, Olympic Gold Medalist rower was recently quoted as saying, “It’s hard going from being the best in the world at something to being really crap at something else.”
Companies who are able to support athletes, particularly through employment or work experience, are helping athletes to build social capital in a different area, especially if the company proactively invests in developing athletes, like you would hope it would do with any new intern or employee. Athletes are able to learn about the industry, the people that work in it, where they fit in and how they can contribute to their new environment. Again, this is helping to develop athletes for their life after sport and to help build their non-sporting identity.
Relatedness of both athletes and employees to one another builds and there is a matching of similar interests. Ultimately, the company benefits, as when the time does come for athletes to retire, they will have a ready-made, high-achieving employee, who is comfortable engaging with those around them, with an intrinsic motivation to perform well for the company.
5. Can they be successful here?
Following on from the above consideration, when a company engages with an athlete, they are no doubt aware of their potential, of the commonly talked-about “transferable skills”. But what about actually doing the job?
Similar to the point mentioned regarding social capital, when entering a foreign environment, it can be quite a shock to the system. Taken completely out of their comfort zone, it can be quite a confronting experience for athletes. Having been so focused, to work their way to the top and to perform optimally in their chosen discipline, to then be thrust into an environment where they are starting from the bottom, without really knowing if they are capable of doing their new job.
When a company incorporates an athlete into their office, they are helping to build towards an optimal level of competency for an athlete, within the role and industry they are looking to enter. By doing this while an athlete is still competing, it ensures that when an athlete retires they don’t feel like they are starting again, are comfortable in their ability to fulfil the requirements of the role and can approach the next stage of their career with confidence and excitement. An athlete will know that they have the potential to be successful and have their next outcome and goal to strive for.
Athletes have spent most of their athletic lives receiving constant feedback. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we receive is that a major challenge athletes are faced with when they enter a new role or workplace, is that they are waiting for that constant feedback to continue. Whilst it is definitely not expected that a company matches this almost extreme level of feedback that athletes receive during their sporting career, certainly having an awareness to help athletes feel more comfortable in a new role, this almost reliance on a constant feedback system is something that should be given careful consideration.
We have heard stories of athletes feeling a bit lost and unsure of themselves, as they have been put in front of a computer and almost been left to their own devices. Whilst for most of us, who have not been exposed to constant feedback and have followed a more traditional route through our careers, this may seem fairly normal; but for certain athletes, these may be a cause for unease and anxiety, as they are unsure whether they are doing what is required of them in a foreign environment.
A simple way for companies to address this would be to allocate an internal mentor to help incorporate athletes into the fabric of the company and to ensure they understand the requirements of the role. Additionally, conversations that occur before an athlete begins their time within the business can address feedback, such as when they will receive it and that they can seek it out when necessary. Who knows, maybe greater feedback is something that all employees could benefit from and can be something that a business can learn from elite sport as a way of creating their own elite environment within the organisation.
One way to do this perhaps could be to employ the build-measure-learn technique, as used in many start-ups and agile businesses, which is akin to the continuous feedback loop that athletes are used to in skill development, namely learn-apply-review-adjust.
7. Career pathways
Recently, we were told of an experience where a large corporation employed an athlete who had recently retired. During the hiring process, they were blown away with the professionalism of their transitioning candidate, to the point that they thought, whilst the candidate was more than suited to the role, they may have been able to succeed and develop too quickly in that particular role, and would be moved onwards and upwards, leaving a hole again for the role they had just filled. The business wanted a candidate who would grow into the role and follow the usual timelines of development within the company’s usual structure. It’s a fine line between providing a challenge for athletes, but also allowing them to succeed.
This raises the question – does the elite athlete fit the current role and the development pathways within the company? This is important, and when looking to take on athletes, a business should certainly consider what is the best fit for athletes, to benefit them and the company. It would be hoped, that with any candidate, not just an athlete, that they are given the best opportunity to contribute as much as possible to the role.
An important aspect of this is not just looking at the experience or the tertiary qualification of athletes, but their finely-tuned and developed skills and how they can be used within the structure of the company. Ultimately, you don’t want to employ an elite athlete into a role where they can’t succeed and where they don’t see an opportunity to develop and be challenged – prime motivators for elite athletes.
8. Merit with bias
A huge consideration for a company when taking on an athlete, which could really be seen as a combination of all of the other factors, is that a company needs to assess both the positives and the negatives of an engagement with an athlete.
Flexibility is a given: whilst still competing, an athlete may not be able to be in the office every day, for the same hours as is typically expected. They may be away competing for large chunks of the year and training schedules can be in a constant state of flux. Companies need to be aware of this and expectations must clearly be determined, both from a company and athlete perspective, so that no-one, including co-workers, is left feeling confused, bitter or unsure if ‘the norm’ is not followed by the athlete. All that is required is a bit more careful planning.
Conversely, companies must also be aware of what they are investing in; if managed correctly, they are often getting access to a genuine source of talent in the form of a highly-performing, disciplined and motivated individual, who could potentially contribute to the company in a positive and meaningful way for a long time. Whether it is increased brand awareness, contribution to a social cause, a way to inspire your staff, or just simply an investment in the future of the company in high-quality talent, the rewards can certainly be great.
As can be seen, there can be quite a few different considerations for companies when looking to support athletes and their off-field career development. Ultimately, however, is the peace of mind knowing that an investment in an athlete is an incredible opportunity to help someone with a smooth transition into the working world.