Engaging in Athlete Development Resources
Working with Game Change and being involved in programs helping athletes both develop their non-sporting selves and transitioning out of their respective sports, I have learned a lot about the difficulties athlete development specialists face when it comes to engaging athletes on the topic of life outside or after their sporting career.
I often find myself asking the question, 'what prompted me to be active away from football throughout my eleven-year career in the AFL?'
The answers I have come up with are as follows:
I needed the distraction
I enjoyed what I did 'off-field'
As I got older I valued having a non-athletic identity
A PRODUCTIVE DISTRACTION
Anyone who works in or around elite and pro sport will understand how it is an all-consuming industry. Whenever I talk to young aspiring athletes I always tell them that being a professional athlete is not a job, it's a lifestyle, everything you do - 24 hours a day 365 days a year - impacts how you perform on game-day. Some athletes thrive in this whilst others struggle with it. I was in the struggle camp. When I was training or playing it was my aim to always give 110% effort to both what I was doing and to my team-mates, however, once I stepped out of the football club I needed to disconnect from 'footy' and focus on something completely different.
Through experience, I found that if all I did and thought about was football my performance on the field suffered as did my overall mental state. I also saw that once I left the football club, if I had nothing to do I would also struggle mentally. Without any distractions or another purpose, my mind would ultimately return to football and generally on things that would stress me out such as how my body was coping, how I had been playing recently, and if I was going to play well in the upcoming game. Sitting on the couch and watching TV or playing video games was not a good distraction. Playing golf, going surfing if I had the time, or doing other active things were a welcome distraction however when your sport asks a massive amount of you physically, taking more time to be active isn't always a good idea.
Having things to do outside of football became an essential part of me being a better footballer. For me that included completing a Bachelor of Commerce, being involved with the AFL Players Association and acting as an ambassador for some non-for-profit organisations.
All these activities were picked up towards the back end of my career after I had worked out that doing things away from football helped me perform better as a footballer. The impact was undeniable. As an example, there were a few times where I had been suspended for ‘indiscretionary’ acts on the field (i.e. being too aggressive) and as a result had to face the music when it came to internal and external stakeholders of the game - journalists writing articles and fans posting tweets that weren’t in any way kind... In these times all I wanted to do was hide in my house until it had all died down - an unproductive and unhealthy way to handle the situation. Instead, I often found solace in being able to get involved and focused on the non-footballing things in my life. Talking at a school about young people’s struggles with mental health was a great way to remind myself that there was more to life than AFL football and suspensions.
As a result of my proactivity in pursuing non-football related activities and interests, in 2012, after I had finished my university degree and had been working with different community charities for a few years, I was awarded the inaugural Jim Stynes Community & Leadership Award - an award given by the AFL to the player who demonstrates a commitment to helping community causes.
The following season, in 2013, I won the Richmond Football Club’s Best & Fairest award - the Australian version of a club MVP (Most Valuable Player). It was the first time I had won the award, and I was the oldest player to win it for the first time in club history (our club has been in existence since 1885). A fact that demonstrates it had taken me a long time to work out how to consistently perform at my best! Whilst my story is purely anecdotal, I believe it's an excellent example of how having productive distractions away from sport can not only help mitigate the stresses and pressures that come with being an elite athlete, but also help you to perform better on the field, court or arena.
The AFL Players Association, along with an Australian university, did do some research on the impact that off-field activities had on on-field performance and found that there was a positive correlation between the two. At a qualitative level, they found that AFL players who were active in their pursuits away from AFL football both enjoyed their careers more and were noted to have performed at a higher and more consistent level.
To be clear, not all elite and professional athletes do better when they focus on non-sporting pursuits. For some, a sport is their life and their passion and the more involved they are, the better they perform. The unrelenting reality for them is, they can't do it forever. Therefore, having some consideration for their future non-sporting careers is essential. For others, keeping up with the workload and expectation of a professional sporting career is all they can handle, and so adding extra pressure and stress can be counterproductive. In these cases, finding passive and enjoyable activities or pursuits for them to do is likely the best option, something I will elaborate on further toward the end.
As far as appealing to current professional and elite athletes on the importance of athlete development is concerned, the message when it comes to having non-sporting pursuits can be more effective if it's pitched with the idea that having some productive distractions from your career can be both good for your mental state and for your on-field performance.
ENJOYING WHAT YOU DO
The second reason I was active in non-footballing pursuits during my career is that I enjoyed what I was doing. Going to university, being a charity ambassador and representing other AFL players as an AFLPA director were all things I chose to do because they were things that I liked doing.
If, on the other hand, I had been pushed into doing athlete development related programs that weren't of interest to me there would have been no way I'd have committed to them in any serious way. This is a common challenge faced by many AD specialists.
Do you as an AD specialist adopt a 'push' or 'pull' approach? Do you create compulsory programs for athletes that cover any number of topics or areas of interest, or do you work with athletes to help them identify what they want to do and then assist them in working through it?
Of course, if left entirely to their own devices, many athletes would likely choose to do nothing by way of non-sporting development. However, these athletes are also probably the ones who when pushed into doing something they haven't picked for themselves, are unlikely to commit anyway. What's worse, doing nothing or doing something you don't enjoy?
I'm inclined to say it's best to do something. In my opinion, working out what you don't like doing is sometimes as useful as working out what you do like. As an example, early on in my commerce degree, a director of the Richmond Football Club organised for me to spend a week at Ernst & Young during my off-season break. It was a great experience; I was able to meet people and experience and learn things about the accounting industry I had no idea about beforehand. The ultimate lesson I took away, however, was that I had no interest in becoming an accountant and as a result, I changed my major to an area I found more interesting.
The thought I'll leave with you here is this, every athlete is different and has different needs and interests so, be mindful of creating programs and opportunities that allow for some autonomy for the athlete. Game Change, based on internal research, strongly advocates with its organizational clients, that it is critical to adopt a customized approach to developing the individual needs of each athlete. Pursuing broad-based educational initiatives (e.g., workshops or seminars) can be helpful to introduce concepts to athletes, but rarely drives athletes to successful long-term outcomes.
Edward Deci, the world renown Professor of Psychology at the University of Rochester (and co-founder of Self-Determination Theory) wrote in his book 'Why We Do What We Do', "When autonomous, people are fully willing to do what they are doing, and they embrace the activity with a sense of interest and commitment." Athletes, to fully embrace their non-sporting development, need to acquire a level of autonomy in what they do.
THE VALUE OF NON-ATHLETIC IDENTITY
One of the most important lessons I learned from my career was it’s important to build a non-athletic identity whilst you are competing. As discussed earlier, sport is an all-encompassing industry – it engulfs all areas of an athlete’s life. Couple that with young people who have dedicated their youth to becoming an elite athlete and who have likely always been identified by their peers, coaches and perhaps parents as a ‘budding athletic star’ and the ‘next big thing’, and you have a recipe for identity-based trouble.
Having a strong sense of identity isn’t a bad thing, it helps guide our thoughts and behaviours and is a crucial part of being resilient. But, when your identity is attached to something as volatile as a professional sport, where much is out of your control, then that’s where the risks occur.
In my own experience, early in my career when I just saw myself as a professional footballer, I quickly learned how your ‘world’ could be turned quickly upside down if you were struggling to perform game day, dealing with injuries, or playing in a consistently losing team. It gets tough to feel good about yourself when everyone around you – media, fans, coaches, friends – are telling you all the things you’re not doing well.
Hence the importance of building a non-sporting identity that compliments or balances out the sporting side of the athlete. When the sporting elements of your life aren’t going well, you can seek shelter from the fact that there is more to you than just being an athlete.
Similarly, transition out of professional sport – something which many athletes struggle with – is made a lot easier when an athlete has a broader identity than just their sport. Again, the trouble here is how do you engage young athletes in a future they aren’t interested in considering?
Research by Ersner-Hershfield, Wimmer, and Knutson in 2009 found that “thinking about the future-self elicits neural activation patterns that are similar to neural activation patterns elicited by thinking about a stranger.” In our case, young athletes see their future – retired-from-sport selves – as somebody else. Their brains find it difficult to identify with the future. Therefore, they’re unlikely to place much value on it.
In a related study to the one above titled, ‘Increasing Saving Behavior Through Age-Progressed Renderings of the Future Self’, researchers found that by showing people virtually enhanced photos of themselves reflecting what they will likely look like when they are older, helped them to associated better with their future selves and to make decisions that would be more favourable for themselves in the future.
Now I’m certainly not advocating showing athletes photos of their older selves, but it is a frame of reference to start thinking about how we can engage young people on how their current decisions will impact their post sporting careers.
Perhaps it’s encouraging or facilitating opportunities to meet with ex-athletes who have gone on to do great things after their sporting careers, or to gain exposure to what’s out there in the ‘real world’. One thing is for sure; the answer isn’t likely to be simply telling them that it’s essential and expecting they believe you – research tells us otherwise.
If you were hoping I would end this piece with some clear and simple steps on exactly how to engage current athletes on the importance of athlete development away from their sport; I apologise, I haven’t got the perfect formula yet!
Hopefully, however, by sharing my experiences with what motivated me to pursue non-sporting activities when I was a pro footballer might be useful as you formulate your plans with your athletes.
If you want to connect with us at Game Change to discuss specific programs and strategies, we’re always excited to engage with athlete development specialist from across the world so using 'good Aussie' lingo, ‘chuck us an email!’
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’.