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What athletes learn, how they perform and what they have to cope with are critical skills in the modern world, write Julia Richardson and Steve McKenna.

As England basks in a glorious summer of cricket and presently, for those interested, look forward to the rugby world cup in Japan, it becomes clear how sport as a form of entertainment and a multi-billion dollar industry can capture public imagination. However, for every Ben Stokes, Lionel Messi or Lebron James there are thousands of elite athletes across all sports who dream, not of huge financial gains, but of the Olympics and world championships. For these sportswomen and men, a career in sport will inevitably end, sometimes in a painful moment of severe sporting injury or, more usually, through the equally painful realisation that sporting prowess diminishes with age. Life within elite sport is often both physically and mentally demanding and life after sport brings its own physical and mental health demands.

Elite athletes, however, have to manage, not only a sustainable short-term career within sport but also a career transition to develop sustainable long-term careers after sport. For our research into this process we interviewed 28 former players in high-contact team sports – rugby, ice hockey and Aussie rules football, six professional development managers and a sports psychologist. We also analyzed media reports, player blogs and 66 biographies and autobiographies of former players from these sports.

We found evidence that elite athletes have sporting career-related demands and resources which can act to provide a platform for successful career transition into another domain. First, elite athletes have physical demands placed on them. More specifically, fast recovery from injury, the need for physical strength and stamina and, the requirement of high performance.

Second, elite athletes face considerable psychological demands. This includes the need for discipline, dealing with high levels of pressure and stress and the need for mental resilience in dealing with setbacks. Third, some elite athletes are confronted with the social demands of public expectations and recognition, media exposure and social media. In addition, there are the social demands that come from being an elite sportsperson in a team sport, where team squad members compete for places and where expectations of performance for the team are high.

A successful sporting career, like other careers, requires that resources are available to balance the demands placed on individuals. In order for elite athletes to cope with the demands of a sporting career they need first, physical resources. Coaches, medics and nutritionists play a crucial role in the management of physical demands, as does financial rewards. Without these and other physical resources a short-term career in sport will become even shorter.

Second, psychological and emotional resources are required to manage psychological demands. These resources come in the form of sport psychologists and professional and personal development managers. We found that education plays a very important part in managing the stress of psychological demands enabling athletes to apply their sporting discipline to another area of life and future career preparation with positive outcomes. Similarly, we found that mental resilience was aided and abetted through education. Being an elite athlete but not having other lives and interests increases the ‘addiction’ to a sport, which becomes all-consuming.

Third, social resources are needed to cope with social demands. While social media and public recognition are often demands on elite athletes, we found they can also act as supportive resources. We also found that family and friendship networks acted as social resources to meet the negative social demands on elite athletes, often by taking them out of the all-encompassing sporting environment. Moreover, while the social demands of meeting team mates’ expectations can be enormous, the camaraderie, support and collective responsibility that comes with a team can be substantial social resource helping to cope with social demands.

To have a finite and often short-term sustainable career in sport, therefore, has many similarities with sustainable careers in many other fields. Sports people face demands that need to be managed with appropriate resources provided to enable high performance. We conclude that this is the case to optimize the performance of professionals in most organisations. High performance is related to balancing job demands and resources, balancing demands associated with what a person is required to do, with resources, which facilitate an individual’s ability to do them.

Returning to elite sportspeople, the transition to a sustainable after-sport career may be made less troublesome if we recognise that what they learn, how they perform and what they have to cope with as a sportsperson are critical skills in the modern world. Communication, teamwork, collaboration, leadership, resilience, stamina, discipline, optimism, networks are crucial aspects of a sporting career and they are critical aspects of assisting elite sportspeople in transitioning to ‘normal’ life. A few elite athletes may leave sport as multi-millionaires, but the vast majority do not. From a very early age they have chased a single dream of sporting success and at some point have to enter a career after sport. Our research shows how what they learn in sport can be of great value to them in their transition, while recognising, in addition, what they should do while in their sporting career in order to successfully transition from it.

While we watch in awe the feats of elite athletes, they, like the awe-struck viewer, will need to return successfully to the more prosaic concerns of day-to-day life.

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Note: The post gives the views of its authors, not the position USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Julia Richardsons – Curtin Business School
Julia Richardsons is a professor and head of the School of Management at Curtin Business School (Perth, Australia).She is an expert in careers and human resources management and former chair of the careers division of the Academy of Management. She has enjoyed a global career in both the private and public sectors in the UK, Singapore, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand and Canada. Professor Richardson is a member of the New Zealand Expert Business Performance Panel working with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. She is also an associate editor of two top tier academic journals. She has  won multiple awards for her research and teaching.

Steve McKenna – Curtin Business School
Steve McKennais an associate professor of management and director of MBA programmes at Curtin Business School. He has worked in Asia, North America and Europe. His research interests include global mobility and networks; human resource management and ethics; career transition and talent management. He has published on these topics in leading academic journals.