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Five Fundamental Strategies to Help Sports Organizations Promote Life-long Employability for Athletes

We’ve developed a comprehensive checklist of best practices for sports organizations to help athletes prepare for life beyond sport and harness the value they bring to employers.

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Posted On AUG 05, 2021 
Ask any elite athlete and they will tell you that to succeed, they must be totally focused on training and competition. So much so that it’s sometimes difficult to find the time to think about a future after sport.

However, if we know anything about the highest level of sports, it is that retirement comes for every athlete, at some point. That puts the onus on athletes and their sports organizations to put as much effort into building an effective transition program as they do in preparing them for competition.

But where to start? Sports organizations are experts in their chosen fields, but they often lack the expertise and skills to provide career transition support to athletes.

Over the years, LHH and its parent company, the Adecco Group, have developed a comprehensive checklist of best practices for sports organizations. Here are five fundamental strategies to help sports organizations promote life-long employability for athletes.

1/ Make athlete career transition planning a formal policy and program

Far too many sports organizations have deliberately excluded all discussion of post-competition career planning out of a fear it would distract athletes from job one: training and competing.

However, a few truly progressive sports organizations have started to realize that post-competition career planning should be a part of their core programming. And that athletes should be exposed to that programming from the start of their competitive careers and not just on the eve of retirement.

Some, like the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professioniels (FIFPRO), a global organization that advocates for better treatment of 65,000 professional soccer players, provides advice to football organizations on how to promote education and post-competition career planning into their day-to-day operations.

In its 2021 Shaping Our Future Report, FIFPRO notes that football is a profession with notoriously little job security. Short-term contracts, intense competition for first-team spots all add up to significant uncertainty. Football players need to be encouraged to start planning for their post-competition careers as soon as possible.

“The challenge lies in changing the perception that it is not possible to pursue both a football career and other education or vocational training,” the report stated. “The benefits of making education and training accessible to professional players can be found on and off the pitch.”

2/ Prepare athletes with a journey map

Athletes are, by their very natures, familiar with rigorous schedules and advance planning for everything from training regiments to nutrition. Sports organizations can make use of these natural tendencies by working with athletes to build a Journey Map. 

This map can help athletes take stock of their current level of career skills and education and plot a path towards a specific post-competition career whether that is transitioning towards a career in an entirely different industry, or finding sustainable opportunities within their sport.

The Deutscher Fussball-Bund (German Football Federation) shows how governing bodies can help players find work in their sports after competition with journey mapping for those who want to pursue a career as a top-level coach. For more than 70 years, the DFB has helped thousands of professional players acquire their Football Coaching License, which allows them to coach at any level of professional football in German. 

3/ Educate both athletes and their entourages about the importance of career planning

To make a successful transition from sports to a post-competition career, many athletes are encouraged to pursue a “dual career” where education and non-sport skills development accompanies training and competition. However, in order to maintain this dual track, athletes need support and encouragement from everyone in their entourage. 

Today’s athletes are typically surrounded by a broad array of people to support them in their sporting endeavors: coaches, nutritionists, sports medicine experts and even family combine to form an essential support network. 

The strength of these relationships can also be an impediment to post-career planning. Recent studies indicate the athlete entourage ultimately plays a critical role in convincing athletes to pursue a dual career.

“However, for the athletes to be able to maintain a dual career they needed to have opportunities to complete their educational and their training requirements,” stated a joint study from Swansea University, the Welsh Institute of Science and Loughborough University. “If athletes did not have access to these opportunities a dual career was impossible. Further, if the support network in either domain was not supportive of the other it was unlikely that athletes would have been able to succeed.”

4/ Make sure that post-competition wellness is part of any transition program

If this past summer Olympic Games has shown us anything, it’s that athlete mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being. And nobody provided a more poignant example of that than U.S. gymnast Simone Biles.

Arguably the greatest female gymnast of her generation, Biles withdrew from many of her best events in Tokyo because of concerns about her mental health. Her decision, in the heat of competition, was controversial; but it also triggered an important debate about the need to ensure that mental health – both during competition and post-competitive careers – is built into the athlete journey.

Experts in athlete mental health have been sounding the alarm for years now, advocating a formal wellness framework as part of competitive and post-competitive training and preparation. Academic studies have suggested that up to one in five retiring elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis upon leaving their sports.

Thankfully, some sports organizations are taking up the challenge. Game Plan, a joint program between the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Sport Canada, provides mental health support to athletes during and after their careers.  And the governing organizations that oversee Australia’s Olympic, Paralympic and Commonwealth Games athletes were recently told that they must offer mental health programming and submit to regular Wellbeing Health Checks in order to secure government funding.

5/ Get expert help to design your athlete career program

Coaches and athletes know that when you have a specific challenge – physical therapy, nutrition, psychology – it pays to bring in an expert partner. The same dynamic holds true for athlete transition.

The career transition industry has evolved from mostly passive support to active help to not only prepare for a post-competition career but also to make valuable connections with employers that have job openings with very specific skill needs. Athletes have a unique collection of inherent qualities and skills that make them valuable within the skilled labor market. Sometimes, all they need is someone to help them connect with hiring managers.

It’s important to remember that career transition is a specialized discipline that requires expert insight and skills. Just as athletes seek expert advice to help them compete at the highest level, sports organizations must seek out career transition experts to help them support athletes in a post-competition world.

Research by the Adecco Group and LHH has clearly established that athletes have a wide range of core attributes and transferrable skills that are in high demand by today’s employers. That means when athletes transition to a post-competition career, they do not need to abandon their mindset and identity. In fact, the core attributes that make athletes successful in sports can also help them to be successful in a broad range of other careers.

Sports organizations have an opportunity to help their athletes prepare for life beyond sport. By partnering with career transition partners, they can help athletes harness the unique value they offer to organizations, and support them in their efforts to achieve a rewarding post-competition career.