Life after professional sport
Serena Williams has at least 27 reasons to be content in retirement. The tennis great has claimed 23 Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals and is not done yet. Still, at 39, the spectre of retirement troubles her and she exited the 2021 Australian Open in tears after being asked if it was her farewell.
Williams is not alone. Basketball great Lauren Jackson and Olympic gold medallist Grant Hackett are among many who have struggled to adjust to life beyond the finish line.
If sporting retirement spooks even the highest achievers, what chance is there for anyone else?
There is no need, according to athlete development expert Matthew Pink, to fear a post-sporting career.
Dr Pink received his doctorate from ACU in athlete dual career and holistic development. Having led a study into the maintenance of on-field success with off-field player development, he has advice on how professional athletes can fortify themselves against slipping into a dark hole in retirement.
“It’s a misconception that they’re only suitable to coaching or media commentary,” Dr Pink said.
“There are many transferable skills that athletes develop that translate very well to business and other fields: teamwork, opposition analysis, determination, diligence. The challenge is to reframe those skills and package them in a way that’s attractive to different fields of work or further study.”
Kicking study goals
At 29, Sydney Roosters half Luke Keary still has time and the drive to add to his three NRL premierships, Clive Churchill Medal and representative appearances for NSW and Australia.
He is also bullish about his off-field prospects which look bright after completing a Bachelor of Business (Administration) at ACU.
The father-of-two did not need the premature retirements of teammate Jake Friend or Cowboys rival Michael Morgan to remind him of the importance of having a plan B. As a teenager he noted the example set by his father Jim who juggled an IT career with postgraduate study.
“At the time I never saw myself as a student, but in the end I kind of followed Dad. We talk business all the time,” Keary said.
“There were times I wanted to quit studying, but he didn’t let me. I wouldn’t have made it through without Dad.”
Keary was a member of ACU’s Elite Athlete and Performer Program which helped him balance the demands of being a student-athlete.
Long before he graduated, Keary was making connections as part of a plan to complete a series of internships over the next three years.
“If my career finished next year at 30, I’d feel confident,” he said. “But there’s a whole bunch of people my age who’ve got 10 years’ experience on me while I’ve been playing footy.
“Rugby league has given me some experience that’s transferable but I’m at a slight disadvantage because I’ve not worked. I’m comfortable where I’m at education-wise. I just need my experience to marry-up.”
Don’t be pigeonholed
Keary is on the right track according to Dr Pink. Professional sport can forget its stars quickly so developing multiple facets to both your identity and your career development is vital.
“One way to continue nourishing your identity as an athlete and competitor is to find ways to compete beyond the professional career. This could be in sports at an amateur or semi-professional level, or finding a career that is naturally competitive such as business or sales,” Dr Pink said.
Another important element is to pursue other interests and relationships throughout your career to further develop other parts of your identity.
“Ultimately, we are all multi-faceted and complex human beings and the whole of our identity and person needs to be nourished and developed,” Dr Pink said. “Experiencing different life roles helps us learn about who we are as people.
“For some, given the intense focus on sport when you’re at your peak, they don’t always have the variety of opportunities that many of us have. They become too singular in their identity.
“Many of us are partners, parents, workers who have hobbies and interests outside of our jobs. Those different domains protect us from having a negative experience – like deselection or sudden retirement – in one of the other domains.”
Among professional AFL players, Dr Pink’s research has shown that club support for players’ off field lives can predict up to 13 per cent of the variance in the level of engagement (confidence, dedication, enthusiasm, and energy) players have in their roles as professional footballers. The finding suggests that beyond an ethical imperative, there is also a performance-based rationale for supporting athlete's lives and development outside of football.
Additionally, Dr Pink recommends exploring alternative career paths while a professional athlete. This may involve several ‘false starts’ however this is not dissimilar to other adults in what is termed the period of emerging adulthood (ages 18 – 29). Sometimes it can take several trials to find a career path that is suitable and enjoyable.
Employers, too, have an obligation to support athletes to develop dual careers. The AIS (Personal Excellence Program), AFL (Max360) and NRL (Careerwise) all have resources to support career transition.
“Many sporting organisations have woken up to their ethical responsibilities of supporting their athletes in recognition that there’s a biological limit to how long they can be athletes for,” Dr Pink said.
Dr Matthew Pink is a Research Fellow with ACU Engagement. His research areas of interest include the transformational processes of university-community engagement, sport for development in developing and developed nations, and elite athlete welfare and development.
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