• Niall O'Carroll

Aftershock: A story of athlete transition

"So, what happens when the heart just stops ... but the body goes on living?"

Have you ever considered what happens to Olympic champions, pro Hockey, Football or basketball players once their athletic careers end? The above quote is a line from a song by an Irish band called The Frames. For me it sums up the challenge every athlete is faced with when it comes time to stop. This article is about the transition of athletes and the translation of their skills from one environment to another.

They say an athlete dies twice. Well in my work and research I have had the pleasure to sit down with Olympic Champions, World record holders and professionals from a host of sports around the globe. I have built a four pillar transition model. One which being Post Athletic Identity. For most athletes a major obstacles they face is the fact that they have devoted their lives to a common task be it winning Olympic Gold, running faster, jumping longer, tackling harder, scoring more to the detriment of education, socialization or career planning. When it ends the bubble they have lived in bursts and suddenly 'life happens'. In the main they are ill prepared for this. 

In a conversation with a two time Olympic Rowing champion I learned that  "it's not the competition or the adrenaline I miss, it's the simplicity of life". This same athlete spoke to me about how he didn't feel he had any skills to offer any prospective employer. Here is a guy who rowed in the Cambridge/ Oxford boat race, won gold at two Olympics Games and yet he couldn't see what traits an employer might see in him. He spoke of going to job interviews where the panel were excited to speak of his athletic achievements but then would inform him that they had no position for him. I introduced him to the above article in Forbes magazine about the '15 traits of the ideal employee' and we spoke of the way he could interpret his career from a business perspective. I asked him if in his career he could showcase periods of leadership, being goal oriented, being self motivated, seeing tasks out to the end etc. He is an exceptionally bright, charming guy and he figured out his path pretty quickly but it left me thinking how many other athletes feel the same way?

It fascinates me why someone who can achieve so much in their sporting careers should see so little value in their athletic endeavours once they finish. One of the simple tasks I set those I work with is to review the aforementioned article in Forbes magazine. I then ask the athletes to write down where their career experiences can be relatable. This is a very simple tool but is remarkably powerful as most athletes at the elite level are not encouraged to consider anything except their performance goals throughout their career. As one coach put it to me (in slightly more colourful language) "I don't care if they play with xbox all day as long as they perform when I ask them too". 

New Zealand Rugby recognized after the 2007 World Cup that Physical development of their players wasn't going to solely bring them success. Strength and Conditioning science was such that every one of their competitors were similarly building bigger, faster, stronger athletes too. It was then that that Head Coach Graham Henry coined the phrase "Better People, make Better All Blacks". They started working on programs to develop wellbeing and emotional maturity in their players along with the remarkable fitness level they have achieved. Guys like Rob Nichol and David Gibson at the New Zealand Rugby Players Association started building programs and exit strategies for their members. A network called 'The Rugby Club" was set up to assist players in finding work once the 'music had stopped'. I like to think that this in some part has contributed to the All Blacks winning back to back World Cups.

I am not suggesting that athletes are helpless in all of this and need to be treated like children. Quite the opposite in fact, I am saying lets start building programs which give them the tools to take control of their lives and contribute in other ways once the athletic stage of their careers ends. This scenario is also applicable to all of us in our everyday lives. It is not just athletes who experience transition from one career to another. Taking 5 minutes to read the above article can help you reevaluate your skill set and prepare you for the next exciting stage of your career. The next time you are preparing for a job interview consider that a two time Olympic champion shared the same nerves you do.

Go be a champion too.