What to do when the Olympic career’s over

Olympic kayaking - a passion, but not a careerOlympic gold medalist Tim Brabants knows better than most how important it is to have a career you can turn to when the sports career finishes. The sprint kayaker is a qualified doctor and will return to medicine whenever he eventually hangs up his paddles.

He’s not “lucky”, he’s just fortunate in that he planned ahead. Others are not so fortunate. Many sportsmen and women find that after one or two decades of sacrificing absolutely everything for their sport they struggle to fit back into “normal” life, sometimes lacking the qualifications or work experience to attract an employer.

Transferable skills?

Sure, if you have a medal (and if it’s golden, so much the better) then you may be ok…..many companies would like the kudos that comes from employing a medal-winning Olympian. But not everyone has a medal at the Olympic Games to show for their decade or more of sacrifice.

Multiple world marathon champion Ivan Lawler works as an osteopath. Other ex canoeists work in property, financial services, sales…careers that require certain skills rather than experience.

Many Olympians remain in sport as coaches. Others try to capitalise on their sports knowledge and think about a career in the media – as a sports journalist or broadcaster but, as Tim Brabants himself suggests, that’s an option open to few. The question to ask yourself is how knowledgeable you really are about sports other than your own.

The need for eloquence

Quite apart from eloquence you do, frankly, have to be a household name, which means you will probably have been an athlete (ie track and field) or have been truly exceptional. These are essential qualities to enable you to command viewers’ respect (Steve Redgrave, five Olympic golds, gets called on as a commentator at rowing events. Matthew Pinsent has four Olympic medals and is working his way through the BBC’s ranks. A few Premiership footballers do do some football commentary but here, as elsewhere, eloquence is as importance as your past sporting ability).

Swimmer Mark Foster commentates on his own sport. Pinsent commentates on sports other than rowing but Redgrave, by and large, does not. So you need to consider, even if you get your foot in the door, if you’re going to make a living out of it or just the occasional appearance fee. There’s an important difference – one will pay the bills, the other will just pay for a very nice lunch.

It is possible to find a niche, as ex-table tennis player Matthew Syed found himself as a columnist on the Times. But if you see yourself as the next Sue Barker or Jonathan Edwards, the chances are you won’t have been a competitive kayaker (or any other minority sport practitioner) unless you limit yourself to talking about the sport you have the most knowledge about – your own.

Kayakers do make it to some extent but it’s patchy – Olympic slalom medalist Helen Reeves works in the media as a publicity officer (for British Canoeing, admittedly), multiple marathon world champion Anna Hemmings transitioned successfully into a career in motivational speaking and also has a commentary gig for the BBC at London 2012 though she’s mostly covering canoeing. She does blog elsewhere about sport in general too, it has to be said, and comes across as an engaging writer.

Transition to ‘normal life’

It’s very difficult to manage that transition from sport to “normal life”. Not just getting a job but coping with the somewhat more mundane reality of working life. Going from an environment where you’re top of the tree to one where you are not (and where no one cares particularly that you managed a personal best of 4:20 something around your club timetrial course!) can be psychologically difficult.It’s something the International Olympic Committee has focused on through its Athletes Commission (and the support of a sponsor, Adecco). The Athletes Career Programme is a really useful organ for Olympians who are trying to transition from sport to work.

The ACP is there to help athletes who are still competing and those who are transitioning. There are several key principles – it provides guidance and the necessary tools to help athletes successfully manage training, competition as well as the challenges and opportunities of day-to-day life as an elite athlete. It focuses on three fields: education, life skills and employment.

There are no easy steps to transitioning from world class performance back to day-to-day life (apart from a good piece of advice, which is that you should try to look after yourself psychologically and physiologically….don’t just let yourself go to seed; keep things in proportion; don’t abandon your life-long habit of setting yourself goals). But the IOC’s ACP scheme has some good tips for how to do it. They’re valid even if you’re not an Olympic athlete but someone who’s training full-time.

Why hiring an Olympian makes sense

One thing to remember when you’re at a post-sports career job interview: the skills you honed as a sportsperson will stand you in great stead in the workplace …. but it doesn’t hurt to remind the interviewer of this. Determination. Organisation. Planning. A refusal to give up. These are all attributes that employers want in their workforce. So if you’ve not got a degree, don’t be deterred. And, if you’re school age and aspiring to make it as an Olympic athlete in any sport, think about how you can combine your sport with some studies – you’d be foolish not to.

This article was first published on the Royal Canoe Club website and subsequently also by Sportscene.tv