In this post, I will provide some pointers on some of the ways you can prepare to transition from professional sport into life after sport, whether it is shifting to a new career or taking time off to reassess your skills and strengths.
Approaching transition out of sport is an exciting time but also a nerve-wracking one. Whether you are a 20-something moving on from varsity sports, or a 30 something retiring from professional sports or the high performance competition circuit, credit needs to be given. It is a challenging time of big unknowns and new beginnings, and the question arises, “Who am I underneath all of this?”
I often hear that to choose athletics is to “delay” or “put aside” other career options. I couldn’t disagree more. Athletes are not just high-performance athletes. They are high-performance humans. The problem is that we get used to the cacophony of external messaging, and the external environment.
It’s time to shake off that messaging, choose to believe differently. Stop worrying, and focus on getting things done.
The transition from athletics to career is NOT a difficult transition if the foundation is built. I have worked with many high-performance athletes who transition to incredible, fulfilling careers after sport. Their sporting background is an asset and a catalyst for a highly successful career.
My message today is that it is totally, 100% possible as long as you turn inward and begin some foundational work now, in the time between your training, prehab, rehab and practice/competition schedule.
If you are beginning to think about life after sport, you’re looking at the two Ds. Discovering yourself and designing yourself.
I will talk about the first stage today: Discovering yourself. I come to this article with the viewpoint of a professionally trained coach with extensive experience working with athletes in this area – and a human being who wants to see humans reach their full potential (and of course doesn’t buy into the ‘one or the other’ bullshit.)
I’ll start by talking about discovery in the context of varsity athletics, a crucial stage of life (early – mid 20s) when much discovery, identify formation and development is occurring. It is a great time to begin undertaking internal work at this stage.
Most of my colleagues in our mid-thirties are realizing that this is something we probably should have done while we were so busy getting our degrees, all the while thinking that the degree was all we needed to focus on. I often say that it is like getting a Minor in YOU.”
And athletes in your 30s? don’t say you are coming to the game late, or underprepared, because, in fact, the rest of us are too – it’s just that we had a few jobs we were ill-suited for, that forced us to return to the table and turn inward.
I also wanted to tackle student-athletes first, because I see the “sports or career” or “sports or academics” message come up all over the place. It is the result of many things; a history of coaches, family, media, society conditioning the way we think in our most influential years. The key to successful transition from sport to life after support is realizing that much of this programming is not your own. It was subtly introduced from a young age from all of the above sources. You don’t own that messaging.
The well-meaning messages that you receive to focus exclusively on your sport to reach that high level served you well for a long time, however that mindset is not useful and inhibits athletes moving toward retirement.
I see this way of thinking continue to be reinforced at all ages and level – even by teaching staff, coaches, and others who have an important role in their lives, but also, speak from their own frames of reference. It is well-meaning, but increases the risk of an athlete not developing their identity, or putting additional eggs in their basket so to speak.
My mission is to help athletes of all levels leave their sport developed, prepared and excited.
What if I told you that athletics is the perfect time to develop a multi-faceted identity and come out totally well-developed and well-rounded.
Why don’t we tell athletes this? Why don’t we show them athletes who do this? Why aren’t their profiles on linked in more well-developed to show this?
It is something I think about all the time when I am working with athlete clients. They have downtime. They have rich access to psychologists, and assessment tools. There is absolutely no better time than athletics – whether varsity or professional – to set your career path alight and get excited for the next stage, and with programs like Game Plan, there is a major shift underway. The help and programming is there now, but it is up to you to take it up.
Without further delay, here are some of the most important pieces of advice I’d want to pass on to professional athletes and varsity athletes.
Consciously decide to pursue a part-time degree in yourself while you are an athlete.
You have rich access to psychologists, professionals and assessment tools – or, if you don’t, hire someone that does. Professional ICF coaches and career coaches are a wonderful source of scientifically valid psychometric instruments or psychologists and counselors for deeper work.
Cautionary note: I see a lot of athletes accessing assessment tools but then not working with an interpreter or professional – or doing it in a one-off session. The real value in taking these tools is then following up in a process of implementing them to achieve maximum potential in your life. Just like on the field, you don’t learn a new skill, you drill it over and over until it is in the body’s muscle memory. If you undertake an assessment, work with a practitioner, have multiple touch points, do the homework and choose to notice the results showing up in your life. A professional will hold you to further action than simply reading through a report with a highlighter and thinking “huh, that is interesting” and having a nice chat with you about it.
Psychometric assessment tools are a win-win. They will help you become a better athlete and give you a foundation to work from. They are an amazing starting point when you begin the transition to a post-athletic career. I’ll list my favourites below and why they’ve been so effective. I’ve even experienced their power in my own life.
Looking back, I wish I had a better sense of what I naturally excelled at before stumbling around in the dark, trying different things out. I would also have had much more job search success with a well-developed profile, a good sense of myself and strengths, as well as a confident stance (only produced by standing on strong ground.)
The MBTI Personality Inventory (who are you?)
I have found the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to be a brilliant starting point for anyone. This is what we call a psychometric tool and it is valified.
At the very least, it provides you with a whole new appreciation for the diversity of personality types out there, and their different approaches to life. It makes you more empathetic and understanding of different view points – essential for career success.
The MBTI reveals how you understand, take in and organize your inner and outer worlds. When I took it, I felt like I finally had a operations manual to my own personality. On my work, it has been an incredible tool for my athletes. It helps us to understand talents and abilities that span across sport into all areas of their lives as well as key drivers. We often start by looking at how their type shows up (and excels) in sports, and then we bridge to other areas of life. What is life like working inside of your type preference? When do you excel? What is life like working outside of what you naturally prefer and excel at?
As an ENTP, taking the MBTI made me realize that the way my personality works (inventive, ideas-driven, strategic, creative, analytical) is perfectly aligned to coaching and developing webinars / workshops. Interestingly enough, the ENTP talents have been a part of my life for as long as I could remember, but instead of consciously leveraging it, I always saw it as a weakness (being multi-faceted, interested in everything, easily distracted.) Now that I leverage it, I have gone from good in my career to great in my career. Yes, this is totally my own personal testimonial.
Life changed when I finally leaned into my personality type and aligned my work with what is the most fulfilling to my type. It has profoundly impacted my mental health also, knowing what conditions stress me out, what conditions de-stress me, and how to access my own peak performance.
Working with a client recently, we uncovered a key driver in his personality; the development (and maintenance) of team relationships and the deep need to serve others, with a talent for breaking things down into simple able build a solid foundation and starting out point before jumping into career exploration. It made our career exploration much more efficient, targeted and effective. He jokingly explained it would probably save him a year of misery being behind a computer working with data when he needs to work with people.
The Gallup Strengths Finder (figure out where you can be a game-changer.)
Though not a psychometric instrument, the Gallup Strengths Finder is immersed in 50 years of research by Gallup. I am a fan of tools that are steeped in practice and provide an easily understandable report. I love this tool for working with University students. It shifts the conversation to one of strengths, positive psychology and going from good to great. It is about tapping the explosive potential hidden underneath the surface in the form of talents, and developing them through conscious, intentional work into strengths. It is a nice shift away from addressing weaknesses and deficits – which we see all too often, and which I believe do not lead to the results we desire with clients.
I began using the Gallup strengths finder in 2013 with student athletes at University and have found it to be a fantastic tool in helping them bridge from athletic strengths to academic strengths. It is excellent for helping build up their academic identity, rather than looking at the two as separate and incompatible – something I fight to change in higher education.
The Strengths Finder is US $15 online https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/Purchase/en-US/Index and provides an instant pdf report, though the true value is in then interpreting and examining the results and their application both to your athletic and non-athletic life. I also find the strengths finder does not begin to settle in and talents are not developed into strengths, unless there are multiple conversations and touch points. This highlights the need to work with a coach, practitioner or other professional at least a few times – make sure you go in with the stated intention to develop over time, not a one-off interpretation and information session. Partnerships are important in development. We are not acquiring knowledge, we are acquiring wisdom, which rests on practice and application.
The Strong Interest Inventory (figure out what interests you.)
I have to confess I do not use the Strong Interest Inventory as much as the MBTI, but once a client has developed a solid foundation of understanding who they are, their personality and their strengths, they may want to go further in terms of actual occupational research and interest areas / industries. I most often use this tool to identify topics of interest if they find they need a bit of exploration in that area – frequently athletes have not had exposure to a large variety of jobs / positions, with so many of their summers or so much of their downtime committed to training and development. You can figure out your interests through much trial and error, as most university students do in their summers (myself included) or save some of that time and start with a solid foundation.
I often explain to athletes that there are two parts to happiness and fulfillment in a career.
1.) The 9-5. There is showing up and doing what you are good at (or at least what you have the potential to thrive in with some skill development.) This is working in a role where the duties are very much suited to your strengths and personality type.
2.) The Industry. Having a natural interest and curiosity in the topic and industry in which you work.
First, identify your strengths, what you are good at, how your personality works, and what you are fulfilled by.
Then get down into the “topics.” By our 20s we have an inkling of topics and industries that fascinate us – but in summary, if further identification is needed, the Strong Interest Inventory may be a fantastic tool. There is a part of the report called the basic interest scales (BIS.) The BIS provide a comprehensive list of interest areas and rank your interest to average members of the general population sample.
I hope these provide you with some starting points for your part-time degree. A class on yourself is perhaps the most interesting and applicable class you will ever take. High performance athletics are a noble pursuit and should be no means be seen as disadvantageous in career preparation and planning.
In fact, the interest in continual performance analysis and improvement is a key piece of reaching our human potential and you already have it, thanks to your training in athletics.
Now use that fire to build a solid foundation upon which to stand, when you go out into the world and line up your talents with a position that will let you thrive.
High-performance humans are high-performance humans, regardless of what they are wearing – pads, a suit, scrubs or a uniform. The key is identifying talents and leveraging them across all areas of life, as consciously as possible, as soon as possible.