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Could career coaching make athletes stronger before and after retirement?

From football and rugby world cups, to tennis, golf, and athletics, there’s a big autumn of sport in store.

Years of training will culminate in big showdowns. Glittering triumphs and agonising defeats will play out on the world stage; iconic moments remembered forever.

But whether it’s medals or misery, the athletes at the centre of this drama must all step out of the sporting spotlight sooner or later.

I have written about the complex challenges and psychological difficulties that retiring sports professionals face. But most athletes don’t have time to consider life after sport when they’re working relentlessly to become the best. Besides, planning a second occupation means taking your eye off the ball, losing your edge over your opponents.

Or does it?

According to Professor David Lavallee of Abertay University in Dundee, the reverse could be true.

Taking feedback from 632 Australian elite rugby league players, Lavallee discovered that putting a retirement strategy in place during sport actually improves performance and contributes to longer athletic careers.

This is because the value that athletes attach to preretirement strategy is greater than the pressure they feel under to focus “exclusively on sport”, the research found. Far from undermining performance, the participants made positive gains.

“It is important for players, coaches, and senior administrators who may have misconceptions that engagement in preretirement planning is time poorly spent to understand the positive benefits in relation to team selection, team tenure, and career tenure,” Lavallee concludes.

Further studies show that athletes who have goals in place and hit the ground running with retirement have “higher cognitive, emotional and behavioural readiness for their career transition” compared with those who have retired with no plans in place.

The proactive athlete

With so much at stake, I believe we are long overdue a rethink in terms of how retirement is understood, and how sport as an industry takes care of its most valuable assets – the athletes themselves. So, what needs to be done?

Reach out

Current athletes must recognise the bonds they have with family, friends and colleagues. Strong relationships are vital handrails through a fresh start in a new occupation.

Programmes such as the Five-Step Career Planning Strategy created by Natalia Stambulova of Halmstad University, Sweden, can help individuals develop the practical attributes needed to expedite the transition.

Preparation before, during and after

Professor Paul Wylleman of Vrije Universiteit Brussel sheds light on the journey by breaking retirement into three stages:

1. Preretirement: Develop self-management skills; learn about how to make long-term plans and objectives, and understand decision-making.

2. During retirement: Develop positive behaviours to create an environment in which transition can take root. Facilitators include using professional contacts; staying fit and healthy; sharing experiences with others, and securing financial support.

3. Post-retirement: The athlete continues to transfer skills and competencies into their new life, with online platforms and groups relied upon to move into society post-sport.

Organisational response

Beyond the immediate moral imperative, organisations should understand that what’s good for the athletes is good for the teams and the clubs they belong to.

Senior figures should inform athletes on the realities they may face as they transition. Communication is paramount so that all stakeholders are aware of the support mechanisms available.

Sportsmen and sportswomen must be allowed to use their spare time effectively. Providing the psychological space to build social networks and explore options is key to creating an identity beyond sport.

Coaching and mentoring programmes play a vital role in enabling athletes to develop the mindset and lifestyle management required to realise future goals.

Athlete Career Transition

Athletes make outstanding employees. They’re talented, organised, disciplined and deliver results under the highest pressure. They know exactly what it means to give 100% for themselves and for a team, until an objective is realised.

But they need a little help to get used to new professional arenas.

At Athlete Career Transition, we provide that help through a comprehensive, world-class programme that ensures athletes cross safely into a second career in which they can thrive.


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