How athletes transition from sport to the working world


After the Rio Olympics, many athletes have had to make the difficult decision to retire. In doing so, many will face challenges, but they also possess many attributes that make them attractive to potential employers.

At least, that's the view of Kerbi McKnight, a graduate student in counselling psychology at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta in Canada, who researches athletic career transition and transferable skills.

The feelings associated with ending a career in competitive sport are described by McKnight as "inherently stressful" and even "traumatic". Others have compared the experience of transitioning to grief or loss.

Athletes' entire identities typically centre around their success in a sporting context, so removing those foundations can be disorientating.

McKnight suggests retiring athletes benefit from sessions with well-trained counsellors, who have the appropriate skills to assist them through what can be a difficult transition period.

She recommends psycho-educational and cognitive behavioural interventions that focus on the emotions of trauma and loss, but also put a positive emphasis on transferable skills.

Those transferable skills of training, working hard and striving to reach the top of the game are highly desirable in the world of business.

Skills associated with sports professionals include: discipline, teamwork, leadership, motivation, decision-making, performing under pressure, ambition, goal-orientation and resilience.

One ex-professional athlete who has a successful second life after sport is the double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes. The trust set up in her name now supports athletes through their challenges and into a life beyond sport, as well as getting young people’s lives on track.

The 46-year-old, who memorably won the 800m and 1500m at the Athens Olympics in 2004, overcame a decade of building and planning setbacks to project manage and open her Café 1809 in Hildenborough in Kent.

Dame Kelly said: “As in athletics, in business there’s this underlying acceptance that you have to dedicate your life to the pursuit of excellence. Planning, tracking, monitoring, adjusting, succeeding - and failing - are all part of your journey.

"Knowing what is gold is to you, sets the visions for you to follow. The attitudes, attributes and behaviours you adopt to succeed in business are the same as those of an elite athlete; being prepared for change, understanding the pitfalls and finding openings.”

Dr Jack Lesyk of the Ohio Center for Sports Psychology formalises these qualities and attributes with his Nine Mental Skills of Successful Athletes.

These are:

  1. Choosing and maintain a positive attitude.
  2. Maintaining a high level of self-motivation.
  3. Setting high, realistic goals.
  4. Dealing effectively with people.
  5. Using positive self-talk.
  6. Using positive mental imagery.
  7. Managing anxiety effectively.
  8. Managing their emotions effectively.
  9. Maintaining concentration.

These skills, that have been deeply embedded in athletes throughout the rigorous years of training and dedication, can be applied equally in the comparable 'performance environment' of business.

After all, what is a job interview, doing a presentation, taking an exam, landing a plane, defending an accused criminal or performing brain surgery? They're all just another type of 'performance situation' which requires all the mental skills listed above.

When athletes make the difficult and traumatic transition out of competitive sport, the list of skills they possess is actually enviable. When considering their next move, their main problem might be having too many options, rather than too few.

This article was written by the GlobalSportsJobs Insight team.

Read the original by Kerbi McKnight.

To take a look back at the Rio Olympics and see how the diverse skills of athletes in various disciplines apply to different areas of business, click here.

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