Switch the Play: “The Forgotten Majority in Sport”
Posted: Sun, 11 Dec 2016 17:53
Switch the Play's second conference and networking event took place at the Loughborough University campus at the Olympic Park in Stratford last month. The above title is a quote from the introduction by Rob Young, co-founder of this social enterprise aimed at helping people through and beyond sport; supporting, guiding and facilitating athletes in the transition into employment at the end of their careers.
With a growing list of high-profile clients including NGBs, as well as elite and professional clubs, Switch the Play aims to work with the industry, across all sports to influence policy and practice in supporting athletes in their careers after sport. They are proud to take a holistic view of this transition and to be able to offer individual-focused, tailored services to each client.
Presentations from former athletes and experts in performance lifestyle advice took delegates through the athlete journey after full-time sport, the psychological impact of which is comparable to that of any other major loss, when, not dissimilar to a bereavement, the person in question typically undergoes the familiar 'stages of grief'.
Focusing on how to smooth this transition and lift athletes out of a common cycle of frustration and depression that can occur after retirement or injury ends a career, there was a great deal of emphasis on planning. It was heard how athletes can never plan too early for their lives after sport, but there are many barriers to preparation for a 'real world' career, not least a lack of education and support on this issue. Psychologically however, it is difficult for many athletes to engage in planning for retirement, as doing so is often seen as a tacit admission that there will actually be an end to their career. When you are a high performance athlete, consumed by training and bettering yourself on the pitch in order to achieve your goals, it's not easy to face up to the inevitability of aging, performance deterioration, de-selection or injury.
The second major focus was on identifying the many skills that athletes possess of which they're not aware, or at least they're unaware of how applicable these skills are to many roles outside the sporting environment. Excellence in sports performance requires self-discipline, resilience, teamwork and a host of other transferrable skills that businesses are keen to exploit.
Where help is needed is in empowering athletes to engage their contacts and support networks to find opportunities and explore their employment options. Athletes would also benefit from mentoring when it comes to identifying a potential new career, highlighting personal strengths and selling oneself on a CV or in an interview.
The event had an atmosphere of honesty and integrity. There was a tangible sense of value felt by the athletes that spoke that created a conviction that Switch the Play and similar organisations are genuinely needed in high performance sport. With the Government's Duty of Care proposals in the Sporting Future and Baroness Tanni Gray-Thompson's ongoing review, events like this will be crucial to ensuring the sector creates a lasting and sustainable approach to athletes post-sport careers.
From a policy perspective, it is clear that organisations training or employing athletes must offer longer-term options and support. The all-too-common modus operandi of railroading or 'fast-tracking' athletes into coaching devalues both the athlete and the wider coaching profession.
Successfully transitioning athletes into post-sport careers starts at the beginning of the athlete's journey, not at the end. Sports and NGBs in some quarters have historically exacerbated this problem with an early specialisation philosophy that inhibits young athletes from developing socially, discovering their personal strengths and exploring other identities away from sport. By preventing young athletes experimenting with alternative identities, specialists in one sport from an early age are forced into a kind of identity foreclosure, the negative impact of which will be felt greatly when it comes time to retire from competition.
What impact does the necessity of performance lifestyle services have on elite sport? It raises questions about funding. Requiring substantial investment, any money spent on lifestyle transition is money that can no longer be spent on direct performance enhancement. Will increasing resources for athlete support affect the elite outcomes the viewing public has come to take for granted? Where funding is tight, performance programmes may be forced to cut athletes from funding altogether in order to provide the necessary performance lifestyle support for those they continue to fund. Performance directors are given the dilemma of from where to divert funds, or are tempted to cut corners on these types of services and just to try and 'tick the box'.
Nevertheless, placing obligations on clubs and NGBs to provide athlete care post-retirement is a decidedly positive step especially at time when health and wellbeing are critical issues in society. Further investigation of similar safeguards is warranted to protect individual athletes not so directly affiliated to an NGB or governing body.
How could accountability for long-term athlete support be further enhanced? Should organisations like football clubs make a requirement of their professional and academy players to attend career advice services, or an obligation to present a career plan before even being permitted to play or register? These are policy options to be considered when contemplating the large numbers of youth athletes registered with professional football club academies, the vast majority of whom will not make it to the first team, becoming vulnerable to the problems that Switch the Play is attempting to address.
Luke Regan is Researcher for The Sports Think Tank