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What can we learn from athletes’ career transitions?

This summer, former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshire retired from professional football.

Former Arsenal and England Footballer, Jack Wiltshire

Maybe an innocuous story at first glance, but Wilshire’s transition from sport into a second career throws up issues that should be headline news.

After hanging up his boots at the comparatively young age of 30, Wilshire has spoken openly about the difficulty of seeing his career “slip away” when he had “so much to give.”

Tennis Star, Laura Robson

Similar introspection was expressed by British tennis star, Laura Robson. An ongoing hip injury forced the Olympian to call time this year, aged just 28.

“I think I’m always going to have the feeling that I could have done more, unfortunately…If I had just had another year or two of being healthy, I don’t know what I could have achieved,” she told The Guardian.

Wilshire and Robson are not alone: 50% of athletes do not feel in control of their lives within the first two years of retirement from sport, a Professional Players Federation report found. This has serious implications on mental health and helps to explain why 45% of former athletes experience anxiety and depression, according to the International Olympic Committee.

British pentathlete and Olympic silver medallist, Samantha Murray emotionally “crashed” as she tried to adapt to life beyond the running track, while the departure from football left Clarke Carlisle in such a freefall that the former Burnley defender tried to take his own life.

“It’s incredibly difficult. For the vast majority of players there is a huge hole to be filled. Everything in your life when playing is structured and all of a sudden that gets taken away,” Carlisle explained in The Guardian.

Talents within

But if athletes face a psychological minefield when they retire, then it’s also true that sport creates the attributes that will power them to success through the rest of their working lives.

Jack Wilshire’s football knowledge will flourish in a coaching role with the Arsenal U18s team. Laura Robson’s prowess and intelligence on the tennis court will underpin her second career in media.

Sam Murray draws on her wealth of experience working at the British Athletes Commission, while Clarke Carlisle now works to raise mental health awareness through the Clarke Carlisle Foundation for Dual Diagnosis. He also helps to write university workshops and seminars for business leaders.

More broadly, these individuals – indeed all athletes – have huge reserves of resilience, leadership, teamwork, communication, and so many more transferable skills that, according to a study by Australia’s Curtin University, help to reduce the challenges that sportsmen and sportswomen face as they transition into a second career.

Professional sustainability

Speaking as a company director and former international rugby player, this message resonates with professionals in all walks of life.

If you’re one of the millions worldwide currently going through career transition, it’s important to take confidence from the wealth of transferable skills that you leverage; they’ll play a decisive role in securing that promotion, or taking you further up the occupational ladder.

The challenge lies in identifying those skills and recognising their relevance so that the whole spectrum of your value can be showcased to employers. Could you call upon members of your professional network to endorse your abilities? Could you use your competencies to complete the qualification that will give you the edge over the competition?

Athlete Career Transition

These kinds of questions are fundamental to our work at Athlete Career Transition (ACT), where we enable athletes to come to terms with retiring from sport and show them how their talents as elite performers stretch far beyond the field of play.

At ACT, we give athletes the support they need to develop their skills before placing them into business environments in which they’ll thrive.


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