Existing within its own bubble, the playing side of pro sport can be a peculiar sort of place. It’s a realm where too much is rarely enough, and where spare time is relentlessly consumed by ever-expanding training plans. Owing to this – and perhaps some laziness too – thoughts of career succession tend to remain buried under dreams of career success, leaving athletes with a wobbly predisposition to stumble when the bubble finally bursts, as documented previously.
Surprisingly, many are actually stunned when this happens. It’s as if they had been swimming naked all along, but hadn’t realised until the tide had gone out.
Sport is a great way to make a living, but not necessarily a great way to make a life. The near-mandatory preoccupation with such a precarious pre-occupation concentrates risk in the same way that a reckless gambler might. Whatever about putting all the eggs into one basket, in this case, the basket is also broken.
Avoiding such catastrophes is not without effort, but fortunately, it’s a lot easier than getting into pro-sport in the first place. A first step should be a general realignment of priorities based on what’s most important, and not necessarily most urgent.
Regardless of how big the next game is, athletes ought to continue preparing in parallel to be employable in the sporting afterlife, implying the need to accept adequacy in one area, to reduce redundancy in another.
Quite possibly, this would entail ruffling a few feathers to customise where possible, the daily patchwork of training sessions, so as to free sufficient chunks of time. As it turns out, not all sessions are mission critical. Nevertheless, this would still require some dispensation, but as a timely appendage to a contract (re)negotiation, it’s more than viable.
The greater difficulty is in deciding on a preferred future career path, which calls for some fairly deep introspection and job market comprehension. Not everyone wants to be a doctor, and NASA doesn’t hire many part-time astronauts, so plans should be personal, yet remain plausible.
This takes time, but shouldn’t be a reason to delay either. Even if the career goal is hazy and unspecified, progress should commence in the general direction. Wisdom is rarely found by waiting.
With the voyage underway towards the loosely determined destination, employability will be the measure of progress, tracking the distance from skills acquired to those required. Complicating matters a little is that ambitions are mobile, evolving over time. Like a Dandelion floating in the breeze, they scatter to avoid a complete capture. The key then is to ensure that aptitude keeps pace with aspiration.
This requires a continuous upskilling rather than a stationary focus on attaining a singular-qualification. Skills tend to wither against the competition unless reinforced, so to some extent, it’s a case of running just to stand still, but that’s life.
Despite what some athletes believe, a university degree alone isn’t a guarantee that life is sorted, but perhaps only that it’s slightly less screwed. In any event, this needn’t be a cause of consternation, but just a reality check. Learning is rarely a bad option, or as Oscar Wilde reckoned: “You can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
A prerequisite for this is an inquisitive mindset, one that’s stretched as often as hamstrings. Like a parachute, a mind only works when it’s open. Creativity and critical thinking can be learned, but only through mental workouts, which are often tougher than the physical variety.
Without getting too specific, an ideal end-goal of this education might be a sort of opposable and interdisciplinary mind, one that doesn’t think in zero-sum outcomes, and can find novel solutions to existing problems that are both actionable and attainable.
Looking through an even wider lens at the jobs market, the winds of change are relatively favourable. Career security is no longer about a static-suitability but has shifted to a more dynamic-versatility, as technology creates and eradicates jobs. For job-hoppers and career changers, this chaos represents opportunity.
Notwithstanding, changing careers remains a challenge and the associated uncertainty often enfeebling, so a dose of courage is called for. Another equally important attribute will be humility, although perhaps in a higher dosage. Without it, the ratio of confidence to competence will be the inverse of optimal, damaging credibility and more. Known as ’The Dunning–Kruger effect’, this can be a genuine problem.
Naturally, this entails actually getting a worthy job offer in the first place, which isn’t likely to be painless. Potential employers/partners will have good reason to be cautious and probably confused too. Outside of rugby, skills such as flipping giant tractor tyres or bear-hugging angry strangers are not typically in demand. To bridge this gap and avoid any malign misconceptions, it will be important to control the narrative.
For some would-be employers, pro sport might appear only to be a superficial playpen for vacuous degenerates, complete with irrelevant superstitions and distasteful jokes, and where egos are unnaturally large and video games are excessively played.
On the other hand, some will see pro sport as an assembly line for leaders of limitless motivation who prosper under pressure and are schooled in strategy, innovation and the merits of creative destruction. It’s up to the candidate to provide the context.
Importantly, any portrayal must be true and referenced from reality and not merely a forthcoming ideology, because inconsistencies will be quickly uncovered. As Henry Ford neatly summed up: “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.”
The intention then should be to find a creative way to reconnect historical dots compellingly so as to have forward-looking relevance, in a way that is both transferable and relatable.
One of the biggest benefits of beginning a new career so late in life – and there aren’t many – is that individuals will be initially immune to the ingrained inefficiencies and cumbersome controls within organisations, perhaps allowing them to see the real implications and opportunities more clearly.
Yet, this potential is not for showtime during an interview. Yes, corporate culture can learn a lot from top-class sport, but the same is also true in reverse. In this setting, only those without failing should cast the first lecture.
All the same, pro sport has plenty of other good material to discuss when interviewing. Given its positioning at the intersection of fitness, finance and entertainment, it has more than enough transactions and transgressions to discuss. From learnings about sport science, to the procurement and usage of complimentary technologies of varying degrees of efficacy, there is an abundance of technical information and implementation to distill.
Equally, an ability to articulate the various pros and cons of different styles of management across the sporting organisation in terms of leadership, empowerment, communication, control, accountability and profitability would be a boon in any interview, if referenced objectively against competing examples, styles, techniques and clubs. Tying this back to sporting performance would then nicely reinforce the message.
Bridging from pro sport into the real world is an uphill struggle in terms of earnings initially, but not necessarily in terms of potential. There are any number of ways to be successful and happy, with or without bundles of money, so while it’s good to take inspiration from others, each should chart their own unique course, whatever that may be.
It was talent and tough work that enabled athletes to hit a target few others could reach, but it will be guile and good planning that will allow them to hit a target that no other can yet see.
Eoghan Hickey, Pundit Arena.