Last updated: October 25, 2017
As an athlete, you are often told that sport will open a lot of doors for you, particularly around business and financial opportunities. However, it is very easy to fall into the trap of sitting back and waiting for those opportunities to come rushing in through the door. After all, you feel you need to focus exclusively on your sport, which really is quite understandable.
The reality is, however, that the doors that are worth opening, more often than not won’t open themselves:
- Often the people that come knocking are not well-meaning and only want a slice of the pie because of who you are; or
- You potentially have no guidance or understanding of the offers, but follow through anyway because the person offering is “a nice chap!”; or
- Nothing materialises because there are other athletes out there who are equally after what you want and prepared better than you did.
So how do these door-openings actually occur for athletes in the real world? What can you do to ensure that you not only put your best foot forward, but you also safeguard yourself against unwarranted approaches?
Let’s start with a personal story about the origins of networking in my life.
“I got my first job through networking”
One morning a number of years ago, I was preparing to head off to my first day at university during Fresher’s Week. One of my brothers – 14 years my senior – took me aside and wished me luck for the exciting educational adventure upon which I was about to embark.
While one part of me knew precisely that the ‘adventure’ side of things which he was referring to would entail fun, parties, meeting people, wearing shorts and t-shirts all the time and no detention if you didn’t do your homework, I also accepted that there would be a fair bit of personal responsibility to uphold in order to pass, particularly given I was paying my own way through university and any failure on my part would result in personal financial penalty.
What I didn’t expect him to say was what he told me.
“Buddy, the technical things you’ll learn out of a textbook and obtaining the certificate at the end of the course are only part of the equation.”
“Ok…” I replied, wondering where this was going.
“My only advice is that the single most important skill you have to, no, need to learn is to network with others. The friends I made in university are still the friends I have today. In fact, one of the guys I met through the gymnastics club helped me get my first job. Good luck.”
As a fresh-faced 17-year old about to leap with unbridled energy into the playground that is a university campus, it was refreshing advice. And I actually listened. To this day, it has still been one of the most critical pieces of advice I have ever been given.
It has given me endless work and business opportunities. It has helped me to understand what makes people tick and know that other people are just different and not wrong. Crucially, it has given me an army of people who provide me with constant upliftment and constructive feedback. I also have endless expertise to call on in areas of which I am a self-confessed novice.
It, therefore, stands to reason that I can’t imagine how my life could have panned out had I not heeded his advice on networking.
Why is networking for athletes important when preparing for life after sport?
During your sporting career, you will meet a number of people. Teammates, coaches, sponsors, fans, doctors (hopefully not that many!), scientists and media, to name but a few. Most of these people will have a vested interest in your success on the field. And for good reason: if you succeed, they succeed!
When the time inevitably comes to finish your career as an athlete, if you haven’t immediately got something to jump into, there will come a period of time when you try a few things out, research your pre-existing career options, or take some time off to figure your path out.
“But I don’t know what my path is!”
What happens if you can’t find that “one thing”, the ultimate prize on your career mantelpiece? Well, firstly, your “one thing” should really be “one of 3 or more options”. But this is where networking comes in.
The people you have met and connected properly with can be some of the first people upon whom you call on. These people can help you prepare for and ultimately transition into a life after sport. And just think of the variety of careers and industries those people will be connected to!
It has also been shown that effective networking accounts for an estimated 70% of all job offers! So why not let that be you? It, therefore, pays to be proactive in your networking.
Critically, by networking while you are still an athlete, you are using one of your most important assets: relevance.
Your star may never shine as brightly as it does while you are in the spotlight as a hero and role model to a large audience. As elite basketballer Mason Plumlee says, “You need to take the initiative and meet whomever you want to. They’ll take your call or at least listen to you. But once you’re done playing, they’re probably not picking up. Don’t wait until you’re 40 to take advantage of the platform you have.”
So what is “networking”, exactly?
In a formal sense, it is a social activity where people meet and connect to form professional (or sometimes social) relationships that are most often mutually beneficial. In the business world what this means operationally is that the two parties come together to create business opportunities and/or share information and/or seek potential employees or partners for business ventures.
There are social applications too, such as for personal relationships (eg. speed dating, finding flatmates) and sports clubs. But the scope of this piece is mainly directed at networking for athletes in the professional business sense.
Networking can take a variety of forms, such as:
- Purely online
- Social media reach
So how does an athlete become better at effective networking?
As a former committee member of the Australian Rugby Business Network (a global network for connecting business people with a passion for rugby), one of the first things I learnt was to ask the following question: “What can I do for you?”
It is so simple, but so effective and will more often than not make them believe that you genuinely do care about them. And ultimately, even if it is further down the track well into your business career or life after sport, that you (and your company) are the best option to help them to solve their problem or challenge.
5 simple tips on networking for athletes
1. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there
As you have seen from the above, networking does not have to be this big, scary thing, where you need to be perfect or slick. A basic conversation, a coffee, a smile and a few interesting questions that you can rinse and repeat, will all go a long way. Take an interest in people and ask them seemingly stupid questions. They honestly won’t mind because they get to speak! As the iconic Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
2. Listen to people and what they have to say
“You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.” By doing this, you will get more information than you give. People will therefore actually look favourably upon you and be more prepared to help you. Plus, you learn some really interesting and surprising things about people this way!
3. Be generous with your time
One of the books we read a while ago when we started The Final Whistle, was The Go-Giver. Similarly to point 2 above, it means by giving first, you will receive back tenfold. Just be authentic when you do give. I’m sure a lot of guys have spontaneously given their wives flowers and chocolates, only to be met with, “What do you want?!” Or worse, “What have you done…?!”
4. Look in industries and careers that don’t interest you
This is an interesting approach that will immediately broaden your network outside of your own chosen industries and interests. But, crucially, you can often find answers to your challenges in how others, completely unrelated to the topic, solve theirs! This video about networking in other circles does a great job of explaining how.
Have a Meeting, Book a Meeting. That means when you meet up with someone that you feel could assist you, always set the expectation that you want to catch up with them again in future. While you don’t necessarily have to book it in the diary, just give them an idea of when you will be in contact again. And then schedule a note in your own diary to do so!
I trust you got some value from this post. If you would like more in-depth information and instruction on networking as an athlete, you should check out our Networking Skills course, where you will be guided through a series of videos and brief exercises tailored specifically for athletes.