Why a Growth Mindset is Key to Athlete Career Transition

Why a Growth Mindset is Key to Athlete Career Transition

The anxiety that surrounds career transition for athletes quite often revolves around the fear that the rest of the world is half way through their career race, and if an ex-athlete doesn’t hit the ground running they will be left for dead.

For these proud specimens, the idea of being one of the sick or lame animals at the back of the pack is enough to give their often inflated ego nightmares.

This fixed mindset exacerbates each new work experience into a life or death moment where athlete’s win or lose mentality not only risks their mental health, but also their career progression and enjoyment.

Every article I read last week rightly talks about the magnitude of this transition, how hard it is for athletes and the challenges they face – but none mention the day-by-day conversations they have only with themselves, the micro steps they must take to find their feet.

The language that they create around this new world goes a long way to determining their success and happiness, and if they create fear after every fall, they may well be stuck crawling for the rest of their professional lives.

Self-talk can turn negative very quickly

Positive self-talk is such a big part of their sporting lives, a language they have been taught that revolves around incremental improvements in physical and skill performance. But in a new work setting, many feel that their abilities are lost in translation, and their self-talk can turn negative with crippling consequences.

Positive self-talk has the following benefits;

  • It is process orientated, maintaining focus and preventing overwhelm;
  • It is optimistic and maintains hope of a positive outcome;
  • It creates a perception of intrinsic control, a belief that you have some control over your own success.

Conversely, negative self-talk can;

  • Be outcome-focused, making small matters life or death and increasing stress levels;
  • Turn pessimistic, fuelling fear of failure;
  • Create a victim or blame mentality, leading some individuals to feel they have no control over their outcomes.

Between points: the third space

Regardless of their education, the reality of athlete transition is that for most they are in foreign environments, well outside of their comfort zone and learning completely new tasks.

The one thing employers count on when hiring ex-athletes is that they bring with them an outstanding translation guide – a way to make sense of this new language and turn it into superior results.

Yet when most athletes lose the structured support networks of sport, they forget this and leave this book at home.

Dr Adam Fraser, an expert in work transitions and employee performance, may have some excellent systems to help athletes and all employees with these challenges.

In his book, The Third Space, Dr Fraser highlights the fact that it is exactly these micro-transitions throughout our day that offer an opportunity to notice our self-talk, and within this the choice of creating a growth or fixed mindset.

The Third Space discusses the gap between completing one task and beginning the next – a space where we language the outcomes of our activities and either carry them forward as negative baggage or make a conscious choice to learn from them and arrive at our next task with a positive intention.

For athletes, with the majority of tasks being new or out of their comfort zone, their ability to reflect and accept what they just learnt and advance without judging themselves harshly can make a massive impact on their transition experience.

Dr Fraser breaks this into three clear stages:

  • Reflect on what went well and what story I will tell myself;
  • Can I relax and turn off;
  • Set an intention for how you want to turn up, what’s my intention and what behaviours do I want to exhibit.

Apart from extensive research in the business world, much of Dr Fraser’s observations come from observing elite athletes and understanding that the difference between good and great players is often what they did between plays or points.

How the third space aids athlete career transition

At The Final Whistle, we wholeheartedly believe that athletes already make great employees. But for them to reach their own personal goals and the expectations of others, this method provides a scaffold to their learning experience that supports their ego and progress by remaining process-focussed and giving them an active role in their development.

The brutal reality of athlete transition is that these individuals have gone from the kings and queens of their domain to infants in a new industry.

However, by proactively managing the space between each new experience with a growth mentality, they have every chance of finding their feet quickly and reaching the same heights in their next endeavours.

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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