In a world with a fascination for elite performance, the ability to transition from one level of performance to the next has gained increasing importance. Within the sporting world, one such integral transition is the jump from junior and/or collegiate to the professional level. The astronomical financial compensation available to professional athletes in a wide range of mainstream sports, alongside the opportunity to compete amongst the world’s best, creates a dog-eat-dog environment, where thousands of athletes vie to reach the top of the sporting pyramid. And let me tell you, this often doesn’t have a happy ending!
Yes, there are only a finite amount of ‘spots’ in professional sport, and it would simply be impossible for all aspiring athletes to reach the professional level. However, it is important to recognize that it is not merely the inability of athletes to perform at the highest level which leads to unsuccessful transitions.
Research has identified a wide range of factors that transitioning athletes face which can act as barriers to their progression. Some of these include the changing environmental, physical, psychological and lifestyle factors associated with the transition into professional sport. (3)
More specifically, athletes are often forced to relocate, or travel extensively as a way to transition into professional sport, which alter their training environment, their living situations and the people who are around them on a daily basis. Athletes are often creatures of habit and the changes to their environment can affect their rhythm and the stable environment which has led them to this point of their development.
In addition, physical demands often increase in the sheer quantity of training and competing, as well as the intensity. Not only is it common for the professional level to be a tougher, more physical version of the sport, but differing styles of a sport in different leagues can lead athletes to face an adaptation period. For example, a young professional English soccer player bred in the English style of the game may be signed to a team in Spain’s ‘La Liga’, where it would likely be expected that they adopt the Spanish style of a possession-dominated, skilled game than the tougher, quicker pace of English soccer.
The potential barriers of the transition into professional sports does not stop with environmental and physical challenges. Psychological development is something that should not be taken lightly. Often, athletes are making this transition in their late teens or early twenties, at an age where their psychological development is ongoing, and their brains are still maturing. Further, the change in lifestyle to becoming a full-time professional athlete can affect one’s self-identity, which can have an effect on how one sees themselves, as well as what they expect of themselves.
The conversation on the barriers of a transition into professional sport has many more levels. However, for the sake of space and time, let us simply acknowledge that there are several factors which make the transition more complex than simply playing a sport at a really high level.
The recent surge of research focusing on the transition into professional sport provides hope that aspiring athletes of today and the near future will be in a better position to transition, equipped with a better understanding of the multifaceted nature of transitioning into professional sport.
Why Should Non-Professional Athletes Care?
Well, we all ‘perform’ in our professional and personal lives. As such, we all can benefit from understanding and applying lessons learned from the world of sports performance. The feelings of uncertainty and change that affect the stability of a teacher, business owner or chef who is experiencing a change of role at work, moving to a new city or mourning the loss of a loved one, are not dissimilar from the feelings of a transitioning athlete. Just as is the case with athletes, it is likely that our goal in these situations can broadly be described as being able to adapt to these changes, and possess the ability to move forward and be confident in our abilities.
Why not take advantage of recent research findings within the world of sport, and apply them to our own transitioning experiences as a way to improve our ‘performance’ in our professional and personal lives?
Here are some practical tips, guided by athletic transition research, to help us do just that…
Develop and maintain your social support network
Yes, a bit of a no-brainer. But, this is something that is found in virtually all studies investigating transitioning into professional sport. We all need people to lean on when things get tough. Those who have strong support networks are most likely to experience positive transitioning experiences.
Specifically, surround yourself with people who understand you, what your goals are and what kind of person you aspire to be. Being able to have real, honest chats with people who know you on a deep level when facing transitions is a major advantage.
Engage in a range of interests
We all know how easy it can be to go ‘all-in’ on your work, sport or personal relationships. But, being able to engage with other interests simultaneously not only provides a nice balance, but also can protect us when facing the uncertainty of transitions.
Research within sport and business has illustrated the importance of work-life balance not only for our well-being, but for performance levels too. However, with regards to transitioning, having additional interests/outlets has the advantage of providing familiarity and stability when things may go awry in other areas of life.
A classic example of this is the person who becomes totally enamored with their new boyfriend/girlfriend, loses contact with all of their friends and pours everything into the relationship. When the relationship ends, and it feels like everything is crumbling, having that sport that they pursue, or that hobby they are passionate about can provide an avenue to direct their attention to, find fulfillment in and move forward.
Experience things fully
Yes, this is easier said than done. However, there is something powerful about facing things head on, experiencing them fully (the hurt and stress included) and coming back at it with purpose and fight.
Athletes often discuss proving doubters wrong or coming back after setbacks as their motivation to achieve great things. We often learn the most from our most trying times. Using the uncertainty and frustration caused by the transitioning experience as motivation to overcome, while leaning on social support networks and other interests, can turn the transition into a meaningful, transformative experience.