Over the last few weeks I have had numerous discussions with coaches, health practitioners and students about some of the challenges of coaching, particularly in an Olympic sport such as track and field in Australia. These challenges vary greatly, from resources to facility access, to finances and juggling competing lifestyle factors such as career. And a topic that invariably is discussed is athletes and full time work. It is pretty clear that there are people on both sides of the argument. Many people think that as a high performing athlete there is no choice but to pursue being a full time athlete. Others sit in the middle, suggesting that study or part time work is possible and a good thing, and then there is the camp that believes in having significant career pursuits and development whilst being a high performance athlete. So when I came across this article by sports journalist Chip Le Grand, see link below, I started to think heavily about the message from recent AusCycling boss, Duncan Murray. Murray contends that Australian sport, and particularly Olympic Sports are failing athletes, because philosophically, at their core, they care significantly more about the performance, and not the person behind the performance. He suggests that in many of these sports, there is very little done at times to truly prepare and develop these athletes in areas outside of their sporting performance. They are left without skills, experience or meaningful direction during or after their sporting pursuits in some of the most meaningful areas of their life, that is their professional career. We all know that some athletes will be successful enough in these sports that they can live off the back of their sporting success. But for the vast, vast majority this is not possible.
From my limited experiences in this area, I do tend to agree with the sentiments of Murray. And there are two reasons why I think he is correct. I must proclaim that this position has always been my bias, with 9 of the 11 athletes that I currently coach working full time or close to full time hours. The others studying full time at University and working part time. I have actively encouraged this pursuit and I will give you the two reasons that I think this is not only viable but preferable.
The first reason is both practical and specific to the individual athlete. From a practical perspective, having consistent and ongoing income is important to athletic pursuits. Sport on the fringe of high performance can be expensive. If you perform well you may get assistance from institutes or your national bodies, but they definitely don’t cover everything, and often they don’t cover the more expensive areas of the sport, such as international travel arrangements. Often athletes who are not quite at the top of the game, must make financial investments in themselves to travel and pursue competitions and environments that will push their sporting development. This process is significantly less stressful if you have income, savings and the freedom to pursue such activities without having to beg for sponsorship, take on debt or ask the bank of mum and dad to shell out. Now this is the boring part of why it is practically valuable. The more interesting part is the benefits that the individual receives from meaningful career pursuits. Argue all you like about it but working is important for people, it provides direction, purpose, routine and often the skills from careers and sport are interchangeable and complementary. These individuals become better humans from pursuing meaningful work. And best of all, my experience is that they become better athletes. They become better athletes because they develop skills in areas that often sport does not immediately develop, and then they have the opportunity to use said skills in their pursuit of sporting excellence.
The second, and in my opinion more important reason, that sporting bodies and on a individual scale coaches should be part of the process of development and pursuit of career development for athletes is related to the discussion that we had in our last article on motivation, belief and the benefits to adaptations to training and sports performance. When we as professionals (health, coaches, administrators), demonstrate interest in the development of people over performance, we build trust, we show that we have faith in them as a human, not only as an athlete who is capable of sporting performances. And to me this is the key benefit. If you want athletes to believe in their process, believe in their pursuits, in their team, then it is incumbent upon those in the team to show that they believe that this individual is worth investing in, across the various areas of their development as a person. The discussion on relatedness highlighted that the motivation of an individual is tied to how one perceives their relationships. If they perceive them to be strong, to demonstrate the values that they share, and are made up of quality interactions, they will be more highly intrinsically motivated to pursue their targets. They will go forth with fervor and faith they they are in an environment where it is possible to explore excellence because you have meaningful support structures.
I will leave you with this clear statement from Duncan Murray shared from the Le Grand article. It sums up the need for investing in people, and not just performances if we want true sporting success stories.
“Sporting organisations – whether they be a motor racing team or a footy club or an NSO like AusCycling – owe the young people who are in their custody for the good part of a decade to invest their time, energy, intellect and balance sheets into setting them up for life.”