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Athletic support structures and how they shape success

Receiving an email from HR or having chat with a colleague are simple reminders of some of the support structures that keep our personal and professional lives moving forward.

For athletes, however, support structures are a more pronounced, ever-present feature of daily life, ensuring athletes develop and maintain the physical, mental and emotional skills needed to perform at the highest level.

Below, Athlete Career Transition (ACT) Performance Psychologist, Odette Hornby looks at the support structures that athletes rely on, and explains how athletes can adjust to new frameworks as they transition out of sport and into second careers.

What support structures does an athlete rely on in professional sport and why are they important?

Odette Hornby: As an athlete, you rely on various support systems depending on those around you, and whether you're an individual or a team player. Family and friends are crucial as they understand the demands of being an elite athlete and can offer support even if you’re not able to be around them and spend time with them as much.

When it comes to team support, having a coach available 24/7 is incredibly valuable as they can provide constant feedback on your performance and help you improve. In team sports, you're surrounded by other players who are going through the same processes as you, so you have that social support and you understand each other's demands.

Being an athlete is hugely challenging, and it's not something that everyone can relate to. That's why having teammates who understand the environment and can offer support is so important. Even in individual sports, athletes will know each other – team mates and fellow competitors alike – all can offer that same level of understanding.

It’s an environment of feedback 24/7, and then there’s the wider team management support which offers a whole range of resources, such as physiotherapy and mental health assistance. Athletes are constantly being looked after, and these extra support systems make all the difference.

Overall, the support structures that athletes rely on are critical to their success. Whether it's family and friends or professional support, having people who understand what you're going through and can offer help and guidance is essential.

From a mental and physical point of view, what are some of the potential consequences for retiring athletes, when these support systems suddenly disappear?

OH: Retiring from professional sports can have significant mental and physical consequences for athletes when the support systems they relied on suddenly disappear.

From a mental point of view, it's crucial to understand that athletes are used to getting constant feedback on their performance, which can be positive or negative. They're used to being told what they're good at and what they need to improve on, and this feedback helps them to constantly grow and develop their skills.

However, when athletes retire, this feedback suddenly stops, and they might struggle to understand their self-worth and identity outside of their sport. It can be tough for them to figure out what they enjoy and are good at outside of their athletic abilities. This can lead to questioning their self-worth, and a sense of lost purpose, which can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

On the other hand, from a physical perspective, retiring athletes might find themselves in uncharted territory. They're used to having access to top-notch medical and training support, and when they retire, they no longer have these benefits to the same level. They might find it challenging to adjust to not having access to physiotherapy and other medical professionals who are available to help them manage their physical health.

It's important to understand that retiring athletes will need time to adjust to their new lifestyle, and to find new ways to get the support they need to maintain good physical and mental health. They should seek out communities that can offer similar support to what they had before and to find new hobbies and interests to give them a sense of purpose and fulfilment outside of their sport.

How do support structures in the elite athletic world compare to those in more traditional workplaces settings?

OH: While both settings have support systems and teams working towards a common goal, the feedback in a job role is typically much less frequent and less specific than what athletes receive from their coaches during pro sport.

Athletes are constantly being told what they're good at and what they need to change, whereas in a job, you may only receive feedback at the end of a project or task, or maybe once a month.

Additionally, the reasons for being in a workplace can vary widely among individuals, with some there for the love of the work and others just needing to make a living. This can result in a different level of commitment and support within the team. On the other hand, in sports, all athletes are striving to be the best and putting in 110% of their energy towards achieving their goals.

Overall, while there are similarities between support structures in athletics and traditional workplaces. However, the frequency and specificity of feedback, as well as the level of commitment and motivation within the team, can vary significantly.

How does Athlete Career Transition (ACT) help athletes who need support as they make the transition out of pro sport?

OH: At ACT, we offer a range of support to athletes who are going through the difficult transition out of professional sport.

We provide a safe and non-judgmental space for athletes to talk openly about how they are feeling and how they are coping with the transition. Our one-to-one sessions with athletes are particularly helpful, as they give athletes the opportunity to discuss their needs and figure out what they need from their workplaces in order to make a successful transition.

We understand that every athlete is different, and we work closely with each individual to determine what kind of support they need to adjust to their new professional environments.

We help athletes to understand that they don't necessarily need constant feedback from others, and that they can support themselves by setting goals, tracking their progress, and reflecting on their achievements.

By providing athletes with the support and confidence they need to navigate this challenging transition, we help them to build a successful new career, whilst creating and achieving new goals outside of sport.

Athlete Career Transition

Athlete Career Transition (ACT) exists to help former athletes find successful second careers after sport.

We are with athletes every step of the way with a world class support programme that enables individuals to manage their own journeys.

We build transition readiness, identify skills and augment resources so that former sportsmen and sportswomen can move away from the playing field but continue as elite performers.


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