Barriers, Problems and Potentials of Post-Sport Careers for Elite Athletes
Written by Dr Andy Harvey and Genevieve Gordon
Edited by Andrew Thomson
Athletes face challenges once they finish playing
For the most part, athletic careers are for the young, and even the most dazzling career will be over by the age of 40, and in some sports, such as gymnastics, even before the age of 20. There are obviously exceptions to the rule with golfer Tom Watson being a standout example. However, most elite athletes neither reach the lofty heights of a Watson, nor survive for more than a few years in their chosen sport. Very few athletes earn enough money from their chosen sport to last them for a lifetime, or even a few years or months after leaving the professional arena.
It is equally common that many athletes do not have access to credible and reliable financial and commercial advice, so that even those who do earn significant sums often find themselves in financial difficulties later in life as their lifestyle, developed during an athletic career, outpaces their ability to earn money in a post-sport life. If Boris Becker can make such catastrophic mistakes rendering himself bankrupt, then it must be suggested that this is a possible outcome for even the most ‘clued-up’ athlete. After all Becker acted on the advice given by his financial consultants! In comparison to the vast sums earned by Becker, FIFPro, the global football players’ union, found that over 45% of players across the world earned under $1000.00USD per month. The popular image of professional football as a sport for multi-millionaires is only true for a tiny proportion of players. The fact that only 0.01% of young footballers with an ambition to embark on a professional football career make it to the English Premier League shows us just how misguided we are to believe that all athletes have amazing opportunities to earn money. The harsh reality for most professional sports participants is that they are going to have to find alternative employment when their playing days come to an end. Further, for most athletes this employment may have to be in a non-sport related job given the limited opportunities within sport for coaches and similar roles. Consequently, transferable skills that employers will welcome have to be identified and promoted effectively to show that an athlete can be more than a ‘one trick pony’. One of the challenges that organisations responsible for advising players on their post-sport career opportunities face is to broaden the horizons of athletes in order to enable them to envisage that their future career may lie outside of the sports arena altogether.
What the research tells us
There has been a significant amount of academic research undertaken that identifies the needs of athletes during the transition period. In a detailed literature review, Park, Lavallee & Todidentified a number of factors that impact the ability of an athlete to leave professional sport and move into a post sport career. These factors included:
- Lack of transferable job skills
- Poor educational achievements/qualifications
- Lack of career and personal development planning
- Lack of financial support
- Lack of knowledge of the job market
- Lack of time during playing career to develop a second career
- Emotional problems resulting from finishing their professional career, including mental health problems
- Isolation and lack of social networks
- Poor coping strategies, such as dependence on alcohol or drugs
These results were confirmed in a survey conducted for FIFPro, the world professional footballers’ union in 2016 which revealed the biggest problems revolved around poor educational achievement and lack of post-sport career planning. The survey found that players’ unions estimated that it was usual for at least 20 – 40% of players to have not secured a second career of their choice within twelve months of finishing playing. This is especially problematic as support for athletes from governing bodies, where it exists, usually tails off after a few months, whereas the real problems often only emerge for athletes after two or more years once the reality of a life without sport has hit home.
Other surveys including those conducted by Job4Player, a Danish organisation that specialises in offering educational and career guidance to athletes, show that sportspeople face significant personal and institutional barriers to moving on from sport. Many athletes find the transition to a career outside the hermetically sealed world of their chosen sport to be especially difficult as they find that employers do not value the skills developed in sport to be particularly useful to them. The lack of work experience in the ‘real world’ also acts as a barrier when an athlete, perhaps at the age of 30 or above, has no demonstrable relevant work experience compared to other candidates. From the perspective of the player, their self-identity as an athlete can be tremendously strong and trying to forge a new identity that will serve them well after an athletic career can be a real challenge. For example, research conducted by Gouttebargeshows that rugby players, are “two times more likely to report distress when involuntarily retired from professional Rugby Union.” The survey also shows that players have difficulties coping with not being an athlete any more, more specifically, 41% of players said it took more than six months to adjust while 19% said it took more than two years to come to terms with it
Sport authorities need to take responsibility for their athletes
The myriad of factors identified above can be broken down into responsibility tasks. Whose responsibility is it to make sure athletes are job-ready post retirement from sport? Education of athletes about their post-sport life is crucial if we are to see a rise in stability for athletes once their current role within competition comes to an end. Athletes need to have a broader range of reliable knowledge that is in a language businesses understand so they stand a chance of competing in the workplace against others that already have the education and the experience. Athletes need to learn how to step away from the limelight and the ‘bubble’ of elite and professional sport. It is becoming increasingly important that athletes engage with people and extend their networks outside their immediate sport so that they can extend their reach when they need it the most – retirement. However, it is very rare in the UK sports spectrum that elite athletes have the opportunity to create a dual-career pathway for themselves due to the nature of sport funding in the UK. It must therefore fall to the governing bodies of sport to take a lead in ensuring an effective transition to post-sport life for the athletes that have given their best efforts for the sport. This should not be seen as a ‘cost’ but as an ethical duty of care to athletes. A positive side benefit may be increased participation in the sport as young people and, critically, their parents and teachers, will not view pursuing a risky sporting career as incompatible with a successful and productive life once the athlete has finished with sport.
Each sport offers different opportunities to its professionals and elite participants. Some sports hold very little commercial value and the culture of some sports deprive the participant of post sport career opportunities. A part of the solution lies in the athletes wanting more than their sport career and recognising that their sporting career forms part of their overall career rather than forever being identified as “he/she used to….”. This will require a significant culture change within many sports and among sports administrators and players alike. In addition to their responsibilities to promote their sport and protect its future, sports authorities should also be mandated to look after the long-term interests of the athletes who give so much to the sport. One element of this responsibility must be to create opportunities for education and work experience for the athletes emerging from sport.
Achieving this will require change to the way that sport is funded with a shift of emphasis from ‘winning at all costs’ and medal tables, towards a holistic duty of care towards the young people who pursue their sporting dreams. The signs are beginning to show promise: after the bullying allegations at British swimming and cycling, sport funders, such as UK Sport, are starting to look at the bigger picture and demanding that the sports they fund act in a more ethical way towards their athletes. The challenge will be to ensure that this welcome change of emphasis extends to the post sport life of an athlete.
While governing bodies, as guardians of their sport and their athletes, need to take a lead, they should be supported by a host of other actors. These include player associations, who have a mandate to promote the interest of their members; colleges and universities who need to offer flexible study and assessment timetables that fit in with an athletic career; and employers who might be more willing to take on workers with a sport career who can bring different and additional skills and value to their organisation. By working together and making use of the advice and guidance that can be offered by independent agencies that have built up significant experience in the field of post-sport career transition, it will be possible to ensure that athletes can be as successful in their second career as they were within their sport.
‘Athletes’ career transition out of sport’, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2012, 6, pp. 22-53.)
 ‘Symptoms of common mental disorders among retired professional Rugby Union players’, Conference of the World Rugby Science Network, Cape Town, South Africa. 2015.
Notes on authors:
Dr Andy Harvey, lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Swansea University. Andy is a professional and interdisciplinary scholar with a track record of undertaking research within expected time frames and producing high quality scholarly and business publications. He has extensive relevant experience inside and outside of academia.
Genevieve Gordon is CEO of Tactic Connect and Director of the Centre of Research and Innovation for Sport, Technology and Law (CRISTAL) at De Montfort University. Genevieve is a specialist in athlete care and the wider ramifications of duty of care in sport from a legal and ethical perspective.