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Education: More than “just” a back-up plan for athletes?

Elite and professional sport has continued to grow exponentially in recent history to become a universal phenomenon inspiring so many with acts of heroism, displays of courage and passion with the potential to embody a symbol of human spirit and will. Such an attraction has lead sport to become a commercial and marketing dream leading to the injection of millions of pounds in cash into sport, some more so than others. This has allowed sports the opportunity to generate massive viewing numbers, participation and sponsorship. For some sports such as football, tennis and golf, this has allowed top competitor’s to earn vast fortunes from their careers offering them long term financial security. For many others, this has allowed athletes to pursue their active sporting career as a genuine career option. The vast spectatorship has even offered many careers after sport in the media through television, radio or in tabloid newspapers. However, the unfortunate reality for many international top athletes outside of that select few is that sporting success or not, most will not be financially rewarded sufficiently to offer an income or financial security beyond their athletic retirement.

For these athletes, a second career after athletic retirement may be a necessity. However in modern sport, this presents many challenges. Firstly in response to the professionalization and growth of individual sports both in participation and commercially, the time and physical demands being placed on athletes continues to grow with many facing training schedules of up to 30-40 hours of involvement per week. Add to this the potential rewards available for success, especially in the relative short term and there exists somewhat of a do-or-die culture within elite sport, where it has become difficult for the athlete, coach or organisation to justify investing time or money into education, vocational aspirations, or indeed anything outside of their sporting world when they could be investing it in their athletic needs. For many athletes this means that they wait until after their athletic career to begin thinking about what they should do next. Others will struggle to balance education or training alongside their sport commitments to gain relevant qualifications in order to prepare for retirement, offer them a back-up plan in the case of career ending injury, or in case they simply don’t reach the required performance levels for a s sustained career.

For this reason a lot of the sport psychology research into education and vocational aspirations in elite athletes has emerged from the “transition in sports” literature and has highlighted the need for the Sport Psychologist and athlete to prepare for retirement by setting post retirement goals for the athlete, and recognising the path required to achieve them (Wylleman & Lavallee 2004), be that education, professional accreditation or plans to stay in sport in a coaching capacity. This is something which would clearly be a positive step for athlete’s, however it does not help the athlete who is forced to retire early, or who doesn’t quite make the transition from elite amateur to successful professional athlete. For many athletes, these decisions are a very real dilemma, especially during the talent development phase, when early specialisation has begun to have its effect on education, but the potential rewards to be gained are still nowhere to be seen. The obvious solution is a dual career with the athlete pursuing educational or vocational training alongside their sporting career. But, as was already suggested, the demanding culture of sport does not allow for such personal development opportunities, or does it? There is a strong argument to suggest that such an approach may not just help athletes to prepare for post-retirement, voluntary or otherwise, but it may also facilitate success within the athletic career as well. I will explain the argument in psychological terms, and then try to clarify what this could mean in the real world of sport.

Everyone, elite athlete or otherwise, will embody a sense of self, a self-identity which is how they view themselves in relation to the world they live in. Identity is heavily influenced by the socio-cultural events in your life as well as the environment in which you live (Carless & Douglas 2004). Identity foreclosure is when an individual identifies themselves with one role, or one aspect of who they are, at the expense and ignorance of any other roles they may play and a true representation of who they are (Murphy, Petitpas & Brewer 1996). Such a view of the self, may cause the person to lose perspective, and form a very narrow world view which revolves exclusively around this role and view of themselves. Research has suggested this can lead to delayed career development and impaired acquisition of career decision making skills (Murphy, Petitpas & Brewer 1996).

Now trying to relate this to an elite athlete, we could imagine a picture of an individual, who lives and breathes their sport and treats it as everything they are. They train at every available opportunity, have sacrificed their social interactions, family and education in pursuit of excellence. They have high ambitions in sport and they are extremely driven to achieve. The risk for this individual is that they may lose perspective of the rest of their life. They may identify themselves as someone who needs to be successful and that anything other than sporting success means they have not fulfilled their potential and have failed as a person. The risk of missing a penalty, or missing a putt in golf is a threat to them as a person, a potential hit at their self-worth. In the case of someone who has no concept of life without sport, then every defeat or mistake is a threat to their future and their financial security not just their chances of winning a match. This is a much harder blow to take than a defeat or missed cut in sport ever should be.

So how could not sacrificing education help the athlete? It can dilute this emotional attachment to sport. It allows the individual to develop a more rounded appreciation of self-worth, and place personal value in something other than sport. It doesn’t have to be education, but in the case of a young athlete deciding how best to pursue their dream in professional sport, education seems like a very applicable one. It gives the athlete perspective and realisation that there is more to the world than performance and in doing so, can reduce the pressure, and the importance of every shot or every pass, making it more enjoyable and easier to perform. It is now performance for performance sake, not an effort to maintain face, seek financial security or get an ego-boost with a solid performance. The athlete can begin to play, not work. Csikszentmihalyi (1975) claimed that in order to achieve flow and therefore optimal performance, then what you do needs to be completely for the joy of doing it, not an attempt at making a living or in order to achieve an external reward. That is, playing and competing in sport for the sheer joy that it can provide.

Further to this, there is a range of transferable skills which can be developed in education which can be readily applied in elite sport (Aquilina 2013). The ability to set clear goals, the ability to prioritise development areas, organisation of their time and effort and the ability to critically analyse a situation, draw conclusions and learn from it. Finally learning that rewards come through long term planning and consistent hard work is surely something all coaches could appreciate.

The risks of identity foreclosure, and not planning for life after sport have been well-documented in the sport psychology literature. However, the idea of doing something else alongside sport in order to facilitate long term performance has not been heavily researched, but there are signs that this could change. Aquilina’s (2013) study highlighted some of the frustrations experienced by those who have chosen to focus exclusively on sport, as well as the perceived benefits  such as transferable skills, sense of balance, intellectual stimulation, feeling more secure and the more obvious – preparing for life after sport.

Participation statistics are beginning to support the dual career in sport as well. Official statistics released by the British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) website state that over the last 20 years (from Barcelona Games 1992 to London Games 2012), 61% of Team GB were in fact ‘products’ of the higher education system. During the London Olympic Games 2012, there were a number of sports that had a very strong student-athlete representation, such as modern pentathlon (100%), women’s water polo (100%), rowing (90%), field hockey (87.5%), athletics (79.5%) and swimming (54%). This doesn’t necessarily say that you must go to higher education to be a successful athlete. It tells us that you can pursue higher education and still become an incredibly successful athlete.

However, it would be naïve to assume that a sporting culture where it is not the norm to pursue the dual career can be readily changed. The higher the profile and the higher the rewards, the greater the challenges will be to changing this perception. Some people may see the message as “you should paying less attention to your sport, or try to care less”. But that is not the message at all. The message is, that for each individual there will an ideal level of training necessary to give the best chance of success, not the most possible, and there will be an ideal level of personal attachment to success too give the best chance, not as much as possible. Education may help provide sufficient perspective, focus and organisation to remain motivated, deal with the inevitable defeat and really enjoy their sport making the ideal levels more achievable. Education is certainly a great back up plan for any athlete as everyone will agree. However, it may be more than that, and actually play a role in creating the character in athletes which can facilitate long term development of the athlete.

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