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Athletes and careers: why training always makes the difference

Professional athletes are the heart of the sport system. Their performances and personalities form the foundations of the economic, social, cultural value of clubs, leagues and public events. But becoming a professional athlete is not easy, and staying at the top of the game for years means celebrity status but stress too, both mental and physical. Equally challenging is dealing with the transition that comes after a career in sports, because often it represents a life change without a clear plan. In light of this reality, precise and proactive career planning is becoming more and more critical for athletes, whether they decide to continue to play a role in sports or to move into a different professional arena.  


Let’s begin with the assumption that we have one – and only one - career. This career represents the way our personal and professional life progresses, with all the major milestones along the way. Being an athlete is nothing more than one milestone on this path. 


For athletes, the starting line is not their sport, but their individual and professional dimensions taken together, as a whole. Take Stephen Curry, the NBA Golden State Warriors star, and look at his descriptors on his Linkedin profile: “NBA Athlete, Entrepreneur, Investor, Producer.” Professional athletes, during their sport careers, have access to an exceptional set of resources in terms of finances, reputation, visibility and contacts. And this is true, relatively speaking, even for athletes in minor leagues with fewer resources. For a certain period in their professional lives, they are at the center of their local areas or communities. So, to plan the later stages in their careers, they should exploit their time as athletes.  


But as we’ve said, planning the post-professional stages in an athlete’s career is not a simple process. Several studies reveal distressing data concerning mental health problems reported by football players, for example (stress, depression, alcoholism, gambling, sleep-related issues). These conditions emerge when athletes are active in their sport, and are bound to get worse afterward, in many cases.  Athletes need to stay ahead of the game, so to speak, and take on a new perspective. 


To do so, the best way to picture the model I’m proposing is a career in made up of different stages. For people who don’t pursue a career in sport and go to university instead, their first stage consists of studying and preparing to enter the work world, possibly doing an apprenticeship that in a few months’ time might lead to signing an initial employment contract. The same thing happens in sports, from youth leagues to professional ones. All the athletes’ energy, in this case, is naturally channeled into daily training to earn their first professional contract, and then to improve and maintain that level of excellence. 


Only when their career is consolidated can athletes make other plans, because at this point they have more information and more time to think about other options. For example, at 27-28 years old, football or volleyball players can understand and manage their abilities and limitations, and if they don’t suffer any setbacks from injuries, they can start designing the path that will lead them beyond their athletic careers in the near future.  


And this is when some questions come to mind: What other skills do I have, beyond my sport? What do I want to do in the future? What can I start doing today to get through the transition from one stage in my career to the next as best I can? 


The central aspect of professional sport is training. Athletes dedicate far more hours to training than to official competitions. This is a model that should be replicated from a future-facing viewpoint too: athletes should find the time to train for what they will want to do after they take off their team uniform, but before they end their sport career, if possible. They should start to study, to lay solid foundations for understanding the dynamics of the world around them. For professional athletes, a number of these competencies are linked to management and entrepreneurship, both in the sport world and beyond. 


Here are some winning examples:  


Margherita Granbassi (fencing) has a university degree in economics. In the world of football, university graduates include Giorgio Chiellini (economics) and Giugliemo Stendardo (law). Other athletes have followed a business path by earning MBAs: Pasquale Gravina (volleyball), Carlo Molfetta (taekwondo), Danilo Gallinari and Gianmarco Pozzecco (basketball), Ivan Cordoba and Javier Zanetti (football). 


As we can see, it is essential to create the conditions to allow athletes to study, to become experts in something they are passionate about while they are still following their professional sport path. In other words, athletes need to learn to fill their free time with education and training initiatives. They shouldn’t feel forced to remain in the world of sport simply because it’s the easiest option, or because they lack the preparation or vision to see what else is out there in terms of professional opportunities. 


There is heated debate in the world of sport over whether athletes should get a university degree, like they do in the US. In American schools, in fact, we find the institution of student athletes, which is often criticized for morphing into athlete students and ultimately just athletes - who spend a year studying and then go pro, based on the NCAA and NBA rule of one and done. We can draw a comparison between US university sport and Italian youth leagues, because the Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) or the New England Patriots (NFL) don’t have youth league tournaments or under-16 competitions, like we find in Europe in many sport disciplines. But American experiments have shown that studying (well) and trying to go pro at the same time is no mean feat. From 16 to around 27-28 (the ages change from sport to sport), it’s difficult to focus on both studying and training. There are some who prioritize the first, and others who put everything exclusively into their sport, and put their education on hold. 


The debate is still ongoing, but I’m convinced that for people who decide to pursue paths linked to professional sport, it’s not easy to find the concentration they need to study too. The reason is that sport has become a profession that itself requires study in terms of techniques, athletics and tactics. In the end, formal education can wait, as long as athletes substitute a few hours in front of their play station (or doing other pointless hobbies) with worthwhile educational experiences, even during their athletic career.  

More and more often, federations are organizing educational initiatives for their athletes. UEFA has launched the UEFA for Players Academy, and FIBA the TIME-OUT project. Many of these programs are designed along traditional lines, which is typical and constructive for people who have already gone to university or who work in a structured professional context. But I believe a better way to get athletes on board is to provide a personalized path that reflects the way they learn, and not vice versa. The educational experience should be set up like a competition: the theoretical model (conditioning workout) integrated with case studies (exercise equipment), leading up to a friendly match (guided interaction with experts) and finally the real competition, which might be supporting the athlete in a real-life professional project. To sum up in a few words: an in-depth study path represents a cultural investment for athletes who wants to keep up their momentum and ride the next wave of their careers, exploiting the wonderful world of sport and all the speed that this world can give them.