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Life After the Olympics: How Athletes Make the Tough Transition

Once upon a time, most Olympic athletes were amateurs. Unless they were independently wealthy or had saved up to focus on training for a number of years, they had to have a day job while also finding the time for their sports. That is no longer the case. While some athletes still have jobs outside the sport world, more and more professional athletes train for a living. While that creates a uniquely focused environment that allows athletes to concentrate on their performance goals, it also sets them up for a rude awakening.

The reality is that all sporting careers end, and life after sports must begin.. Some end sooner than others, but eventually every Olympian has to face the question of what to do after the medals. [TWEET] The most obvious choices include coaching and public speaking – both flow naturally out of an Olympic career, and allow the athlete to capitalize on their existing skills and a measure of fame. However, high-paying coaching slots are few and far between. Speaking engagements, while initially lucrative, can dry up over the years because event organizers tend to focus on more recent medalists.

As a result, many athletes look outside the sports world when considering their next steps. The transition isn’t always easy. Here are some factors that can make adjusting to post-Olympic life and life after sports difficult. You will notice that many of the challenges are similar to those faced by regular professionals going through unemployment or a career change.

Shock of transition to a less-structured life.

An athlete’s life is highly regimented. There is a tight schedule for each day’s training, and everything from weight to food intake is logged and monitored. One might imagine that relaxing the rigid structure would feel liberating, but many athletes report feeling lost without it.

Professionals who go through a period of under- or unemployment may feel the same sense of loss. The day lays bare and empty in front of them, and the space signals lack of purpose instead of opportunity.

The best advice for athletes and professionals that find themselves in this situation is to build some structure into the day. Creating a schedule whereby the day begins with a breakfast and a workout, followed by a few hours of job search activities, followed by grocery shopping and laundry may not seem terribly exciting, but it can go a long way towards establishing purpose and a sense of direction.

Lack of immediate feedback.

When training for the Olympics, an athlete’s efforts are constantly recognized. It’s clear what must be done each day to move closer to the ultimate goal. Dates of competitions are known. Speed, height, force, and distance are carefully measured and compared with yesterday’s results.

The world outside of sports does not often grant this degree of goal clarity and immediate feedback. If a former Olympian decides to become an elementary school teacher, feedback on performance may take years – something that would never happen on the court or in the pool.

This issue is highly relevant for transitions out of pro sports, although some professionals can experience it as well. Moving from a job that closely tracks and monitors performance to a more relaxed environment may sound heavenly, but can create an initial sense of confusion.

Loss of identity.

Many Olympians have trained for competition for much of their conscious lives, and their personal and professional identities have become closely linked to the sport. If a swimmer does not see himself as anything but a swimmer, choosing a new career outside of the sport amounts to burying the old identity and reinventing who he is. That experience can be rather traumatic if not managed well.

Unemployed professionals, or those transitioning into retirement, can experience a similar loss of identity.

Melancholy or retirement depression.

Olympians in particular report a sense that they were on top of the world performance-wise, and likely will never have that feeling again after retirement. Doug Gardner, a California-based sports psychologist, observed that the experience could be "extremely daunting." It is not uncommon for winning athletes to grieve over career endings, he said.  

What can help Olympians (and us regular professionals) overcome the hurdles of looking for the new direction, and taking the awkward first steps towards a new goal?

It helps to focus on the assets that have helped you get this far. For Olympic athletes, those include stamina, incredible work ethic, resilience, a competitive spirit and the ability to be a good team player. Professionals outside of sports can benefit from writing down a list of their own strong points, tools and skills that have helped them in past difficult situations. Keep that list visible and remain focused on your strengths to avoid a spiral of negative thinking in the event of a temporary setback.

Seeking advice and help from others can be another constructive step to take. Here is some wisdom from retired Olympians who have successfully transitioned into the post-sports life:

“I think people try and rush it too much. They feel they have to do something, and they panic. Whereas actually, if you give yourself six months to detrain and not be so hyped up and emotional, you can transition more smoothly. You’re not going to change yourself in five minutes to become a new person.”- Elise Laverick Sherwell, a British rower.

“If you were an elite athlete, you have certain characteristics you need an outlet for, like competition and learning and feedback. I think what helped me was going to school, which was a lot of the same things, and then later into a career. Find something else you are passionate about and channel yourself into it—a career, nonprofit work, a different sport on the side.” - Anne Martin, a U.S. rower.  

“I had to tone down my expectations. The performance concept is definitely more developed among competitors in elite sports than is the case for normal professionals or in everyday life.” Luzia Ebnöther, a Swiss curler.

It seems that a combination of allowing the transition to take time, finding an outlet that connects you to what you love, and setting reasonable expectations are all key components of a successful shift out of professional sports into the next phase of life. Just as sports coaches have helped Olympians achieve their amazing results on the court, career and executive coaches can offer tremendous assistance in helping them figure out what to do next. Professionals of all kinds and ages can benefit from independent insights and advice – which makes services like resume review and career evolution assessment particularly valuable. So, no matter what your career situation is, Olympians remind us all that we don’t have to undertake the next steps alone.

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!