Talk to a current professional athlete about life after sport.  I dare you.  After you get past the niceties, you’ll enter the polite ‘yes’ zone, where the athlete acknowledges that, yes, it is important and it is something that she is looking at, and yes, she should probably do more.  The conversation will then end, quickly.  The athlete will then shake your hand, moving thankfully on to the next conversation, nabbing a cookie from the buffet bar, trying to shake off the feeling that someone just puked in her ear.

Can you blame the athlete?  You decided to engage in a light conversation about his eventual death as an athlete and the conclusion of the dream he’s been unbelievably lucky enough to live.  Makes politics and religion seem like light fare, does it not. Plus, athletes regularly hear from a steady stream of business experts, medical professionals or celebrated media ‘opinionists’ who point to a host of different solutions that athletes or their organizations should adopt. For instance:

  • Better financial planning!
  • Better education!
  • More help getting players jobs!
  • Better assessments! What color is their parachute?!
  • You need to fragment their athletic identity!

And on and on and on.  Guess what?  To a point they are all right.  However, as much as they are right in any one discrete case, they are equally wrong in a dozen other cases because each of these conversations is irrevocably tied to the individual context. Any team, league, player association or individual athlete can feel comfortable knowing that there is no magic bullet, no specific 12 step program, no one guru that solves the issue.  It doesn’t exist.  Most organizations know and understand this is the reality, but still struggle mightily with engagement.

So what is the answer?  Once you acknowledge that there is no magic bullet and that engaging athletes is the crux of the athlete development challenge you have to ask yourself what conceptual blanket can you wrap around athlete development to change the direction of the conversation? How do you engender buy in from both individuals and organizations?  Through what prism can you view the field and all the respective players?

The notion I have been exploring is based on the concept of ‘discontinuous change’.  Discontinuous change  has several definitions but at its core it is a ‘non-incremental, sudden change that threatens existing frameworks or traditional structures, because it drastically alters the way things are currently done or have been done.’  For example, to use a trite and simplistic example,  if cheese disappeared tomorrow,  this would constitute a form of discontinuous change that would represent a potential disaster for the pizza industry. The upheaval in the world of pizza would be massive.  The analog being, the inability to compete physically in a major professional sport represents a very personal and damaging form of discontinuous change because it is occurring at individual level.  What can possibly replace playing major professional sport?  The answer is easy. Nothing.

My issue with athlete development is that athletes are typically being delivered information that is designed to either a) educate them about ‘nanny’ issues important to the leagues and teams (e.g. don’t say bad things on Twitter and don’t do this and don’t do that) or b) they are being preached ‘the develop a Plan B’ type of preparation for life after sport (I can literally hear athletes eyes roll when someone breaks out the term Plan B).  A different developmental framework allows organizations and athlete development specialists to re-envision their approach to impacting athletes and how they do it.

I believe that a discontinuous change model can help do that.  When you boil down what athlete development is seeking to accomplish, it is really about preparing athletes to be able to adapt to and prepare for ‘non contextual change’ which in essence is change outside or beyond sport.  The adoption of a broader framework leads to conversations that are, at least initially, not topic specific. We aren’t talking about financial planning.  We aren’t talking about athletic identity as an end.  We aren’t talking about networking. The reason this matters, is that dealing with athletes through a discontinuous change lens provides a framework around which what we are talking about extends beyond ‘athletic transition’ and the baggage that phrase carries.  Athletes are not idiots. They understand that wealth management is important.  However, how many times can you hear that and not get immune to it?  If you get too specific too soon, you lose a large percentage of the athletes you are attempting to connect with. The adoption of a broader pedagogical context that generates more interest, creates less anxiety and can lead to better outcomes.

Dealing with discontinuous change is not easy.  How have businesses and governments dealt with discontinuous change? In a word, poorly (see Kodak, see newspapers, see Blockbuster, see East Germany, etc.).  In cases where discontinuous change has been handled well, if you boil down what happened you find individual organizations that on some level were able to work two key factors into their models a) adaptability and b) continuous learning.

If your athletes look like this when you talk about development beyond the sport, you blew it.

Discontinuous change is a phenomenon that exists in business, in ecology, in economics and beyond.  Porting this idea to use in athletics, allows us to talk with players using a developmental framework that isn’t tied to the death of a dream, but is instead tied to the adoption of a broader, more proactive continuous learning model.
Will athlete’s get it and more important adopt it?  There is strong reason to believe they will. Athletes understand to get better in sport one must continuously adapt to her opponent or changing competitive circumstances and that the ability to adapt is predicated on continuous improvement and learning. Moreover, athletes can be presented a developmental framework model that isn’t dripping in hackneyed schlock that they have been spoon fed in some form for their entire lives by monotonous uninteresting experts they have become adept at tuning out.


Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.


Duncan Fletcher