High-level demands and a multitude of manifold transitions at a young age represent modern performance pathways. In such environments, research shows that the athletes’ undertaking of dual career development measures next to sport appears to have interesting side effects on athletic level.
High-performance programmes have experienced new recent dynamics, becoming particularly apparent in professional sports. Increased training hours, international transfers of teenagers, extensive mobility, an aggregate of external expectations or (insufficiently regulated) agent structures are just a few selected attributes of this development.
While some sporting systems content themselves with calling this “part of the game”, innovative approaches are aware of the danger of uprooting young people face through their competitive lifestyle. On that score, dual career development has traditionally been judged (mainly) a corporate social responsibility of sport. This angle of view misses out on dual career as a supreme factor of athletic development.
The effect of off-field activities on on-field performance
A study of Saunders/Pink (2014) conducted within the Australian Football League shows that dual career development perceived as valuable by players has a statistically significant association with higher levels of athletic engagement. The study interprets that the more players perceive themselves as competent in the intellectual domain, and that they are supported by their sporting system with respect to their off‐field activity (in addition to dual career development, this is defined to span recreation, development of life skills, cultural immersion, spending time with friendship groups, and appearances/community), the more likely they have such a valuable experience:
“These results support previous qualitative research (…) that suggests an athlete’s experiences in activities that serve to prepare for life after football will be influenced both by the athlete’s sense of efficacy in such activities and the support they receive from their sporting club or organisation to participate in them.”
Together, athletic engagement (which is expected to lead to sustained and higher levels of performance) and club support for off‐field life were able to predict 5.5% of the variance in coaches’ subjective ratings of the players’ performance. According to the study, these results are also consistent with contemporary human resources investigations that support the link between the holistic support of employees, their sense of work-life balance, and increased productivity. A many-sided life design of athletes, in this understanding, represents a powerful ingredient of their personal capacity, in and after the sporting career.
Another recent evaluation undertaken within the Australian National Rugby League moreover demonstrates that higher levels of engagement in preretirement planning are positively associated with team selection, team tenure, and career tenure (Lavallee, 2019). The effect on performance is exerted through the experience of career counsellors and the number of intervention support sessions the athletes participate in.
Considering that talent systems equal high-performance environments which strive to maximise their output, the support of athletes’ off‐field lives should therefore be seen as an integral part of development plans in sport. With reference to the aforementioned importance of the perceived value of undertaken measures, the quest for meaning becomes a crucial factor for mental health, adolescent flourishing and performance enhancement.
Meaning requires the maintenance and constant re-definition of the individual relation of athletes to the enormous investments they are willing to make. Finding answers on “What does this have to do with me?” or “What am I doing this for?” is key to an intrinsically motivated pursuit of personal goals, integrating sport and education. This highlights the significance of specialized counselling staff contracted by high-performance systems, such as dual career counsellors, lifestyle advisors or player development managers.
The right place
When it comes to counselling of athletes, its strategic positioning as an external service can be advisable, especially in professional clubs that have not yet fully embraced dual career in their overall system culture. Here, the service is delivered by a non-system professional. This approach roots in the conviction that certain cultural circumstances require holistic counselling (touching sporting, educational/vocational and private spheres of life) to be better only provided but not run by the inner system itself. Instead, such systems promote the creation of a neutral space that needs to be made evident to the athletes.
Proven and tested, athletes substantially benefit from an independent expectation-free zone beyond sport coaches, agents, teachers, parents or peers; as they do from a counselling service that is detached from systemic bonds. This being a multi-dimensional task, a functional inter-connection with sport, education, psychology or other internal service units is naturally required.
According to this positioning, counselling is enabled to consistently commit to one thing only: the athlete and their individual pursuit of a meaningful pathway in the world of high-level sport.
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- Lavallee, D. (2019): Engagement in Sport Career Transition Planning Enhances Performance. In: Journal of Loss and Trauma 2019, VOL. 24, NO. 1, 1–8
- Saunders, J. & Pink, M. (2014): The Relationship between Player Off‐field Engagement and On‐field Performance: Final Report. An AFL Research Board Study
Note: In the study of Saunders/Pink (2014), dual career development is referred to as “alternative career development” (ACD).