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Helping athletes prepare for life after sport

Sport psychology research helps athletes and teams perform better in their sport and win gold medals, but the intensity of training and the commitment that athletes often make to achieve success can also have negative consequences.

Professor David Lavallee of the University of Stirling, studies the transitions Olympic and Paralympic athletes make to other careers after they retire from their sport. He hopes this will help young athletes develop a wide range of skills and plan for their future.  Understanding how skills are developed and applied in different contexts can help individuals function successfully in a rapidly changing society. 

Although retirement is one of the few certainties in the career of athletes, David Lavallee’s research showed that athletes were often unwilling to plan in advance for their careers after sport.

The British Athletes Lifestyle Assessment Needs in Career and Education (BALANCE) project involved interviewing over 100 elite-level athletes after their retirement from sport. It found that high-level sporting competition plays an important role in developing transferable skills such as communication and time management. However, athletes who focus exclusively on their sport can become role restricted and be more at risk of finding it difficult to change career. The athletes who were better prepared for life after sport managed to balance their education and career development alongside training and competition.

In recent years, career and education support programmes for athletes have been developed in countries around the world and this research has changed the way athletes are supported through these programmes. In Scotland, for example, Winning Students provides flexible institutional and educational support for student athletes to help them balance competing in performance sport while studying for exams.

The findings have been used to train advisers to work with retiring athletes who demonstrate a variety of needs for lifestyle support. The research has also been used by the government in the Performance Lifestyle Programme and Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme.

Other programmes around the world have also used it to assist athletes to manage their lifestyle and enhance their ability to compete at the highest level while at the same time developing transferable skills that will benefit their careers in the future. For example, athletes who develop transferable skills during their sporting careers such as performing under pressure, problem solving and communication are able to make a smoother transition into the world of work. 

David Lavallee’s research also underpinned an athlete retirement support programme recently developed by the Irish Institute of Sport assisting over 200 athletes in Ireland.

The latest sports psychology news and features, during the Olympics and Paralympics, can be found on our Going for Gold website.