What Professional Sports Can Teach Us About Career Transitions

Portrait of determined runner

The vast sums of money awarded to sports stars across the globe are often justified on the basis that they have a relatively short career, with many athletes past their sell-by date once they enter their 30s. While the logic is dubious at best, the early retirement of athletes does present a fascinating Petri dish with which to observe the transition from one career to the next.

After all, while a minority of athletes are happy to live off of their competitive fortunes, many move on into a second career. The nature of sport provides a wide range of use cases to observe, both in the nature of the transition, and the way athletes move on. For instance, in the best-case scenario, an athlete leaves the sporting world at their own behest as their body is no longer up to the rigors of their chosen sport, but injuries are also commonplace and can cut even the finest careers short.

Equally, while many athletes transition into a second career in the same sport, whether as a coach, an administrator or in a media role, many also embark upon a completely new form of work with potentially minimal crossover.

Managing the transition

A new study from Australia’s Curtin University attempts to understand how athletes tackle this transition into a second career, and whether there are any lessons that can be transferred to the non-sporting world. The researchers quizzed a number of former athletes from rugby, Australian rules football, and ice hockey, together with a sports psychologist and various professional development experts. They also conducted a literature review of the sporting media, numerous biographies, and autobiographies of players and athlete’s blogs.

The data clearly shows that elite level athletes have a range of career-related resources that can help them to transition into a second career, while also having some quite clear demands for both the transition and the subsequent career. First among these are the clear physical demands their sporting career has placed upon them. If they have injuries or other physical issues to overcome then this is a clear barrier, but their physical strength and stamina can also be an asset in future careers. The ability to deliver high performance over a prolonged period are also valuable assets in any career.

There are also a large number of psychological demands however, including the discipline that has largely been a central part of their sporting career. They are also used to dealing with stress and pressure, with the need to overcome setbacks a central part of sporting life. It’s also highly likely that elite athletes will have had considerable demands placed upon them in terms of the general public and wider media.

Sustainable careers

The authors believe that the tenets of a successful, if fleeting, sporting career also hold people in good stead for their subsequent careers. For instance, the analysis revealed that athletes received considerable education to help them manage the physical and psychological demands of their sport. Characteristics such as mental resilience were fostered throughout the athlete’s sporting career, with considerable support from their team in doing so.

The ability of elite athletes to transition to a second career was found to be much less challenging with the kind of skills and habits they had picked up over the course of their sporting life. Skills such as teamwork, communication, collaboration, resilience, discipline, and leadership are all common in the sporting world, and all position an individual well for a second career.

The results showcase how people who pursue their chosen career with a unique degree of intensity and singularity can transition to a second career with great help from the skills and habits they have built up over the years.

Transferable skills

The chances are, you have numerous transferable skills that can help you make the same kind of career transition as athletes do all the time. These could be in areas such as business strategy, leadership, problem-solving, teamwork, data analysis or communication skills. Whatever the skills you have, it is vital that you can prove to potential employers that you have them and can illustrate how valuable they will be in your new career.

It is undoubtedly difficult to prove that you are more worthy than someone who is not transitioning careers, but securing tangible proof of your skills, via a qualification perhaps, can be a great way of showing your ability and commitment.

You might also work to develop your professional network so that you can capitalize on the referrals that are such a vital part of any successful transition. As our working lives grow ever longer, the chances are that we will make transitions to new careers more frequently. Sport offers a superb example of how this can be done successfully, and being able to showcase your own transferable skills will be vital in the modern labor market.


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