On and Off - A quest for meaning

On & Off: A quest for meaning

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.


System support

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.

TW1N has a broad track record as a trusted partner of various European high-performance environments, both at talent and senior level. Want to know more? Click here to see what TW1N can do for your institution.


  • Lavallee, D. (2019): Engagement in Sport Career Transition Planning Enhances Performance. In: Journal of Loss and Trauma 2019, VOL. 24, NO. 1, 18
  • 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).

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TW1N in the EU Dual Career Guidebook

The European Commission (EC) has funded the publication of a "European Guidebook of Best Practices in Dual Career". TW1N Founder & CEO Wolfgang Stockinger has been awarded to author the introductory column for this book.

In his "TW1N Perspectives" (pages 18-19), he unites many-sided views on the topic of dual career within the sport club context, spanning policy, research and practice:

"Reality check. According to a recent investigation in British professional sports, 90% of athletes need to work full-time after their sporting career. Naturally, this figure would emerge to be even higher in Olympic respectively amateur sports. With respect to the European labour market, there is consequently a necessity for athletes to pursue a dual career as longterm unemployment is three times higher among low qualified workers than among those with high qualifications. In the same moment, a dual career should be detached from sporting or financial success. In fact, monetary security only constitutes one factor to help stabilize a post-sporting life.“Retirement is like walking out of the supermarket with all your bags and not knowing where your car is.” This statement of famous former cricketer Steve Harmison embodies the multi-dimensional challenge waiting for athletes at the normative or non-normative end of their sporting career. Head (with reference to structure), heart (recognition) and belly (intuition) need to find a new balance. In other words, the inner compass of athletes must recalibrate itself to point towards meaningful future ways.

Our human compass essentially roots in values. Values help us establish and maintain a relationship to the person in us, our true "Self". This person (from Latin personare, “to sound through”) longs to become manifest in our actions. For an athlete, sport serves as a most powerful way of expression. However, we all carry a variety of passions, interests and talents which have the desire to be heard. In this regard, it is a long-standing psychological finding that people with a broad foundation of versatile values are more robust and crisis-proof than those whose concept of life is constructed around just one central value.

After years of working with athletes of all ages, it is my strong conviction that the individualized exploration and realization of meaningful life aside from sports halls, football pitches or ski slopes is a supreme factor in athletic development. Where there is human flourishing, there is mental health and, coherently, performance enhancement. This is the sporting dimension of dual careers. Highlighting this dimension and, more importantly, making it comprehensible will substantially strengthen the valuation of dual careers among both athletes and sport systems. Role models are the most efficient communicators of this new understanding: “To the young athlete, don’t bet everything on your health, take control of your life and keep educating yourself. Learn and believe that smartening up is also a way to become a better, more complete athlete”, according to Vincent Kompany.

Within the sport system, clubs play a vital part in the future progress of Dual career in Europe. Often, they represent the main structural layer surrounding talented and elite athletes, in amateur as well as in professional sports. Therefore, clubs are asked to create a clear image on how to contribute to an integrated developmental space for their athletes. A tailored internal management system, collaborative partnerships with the educational and economic sector and a systemic openness to international best practice may serve as core pillars of a coordinated Dual Career approach. As a result, strategic measures on club level do not only signify a lived corporate social responsibility but further promise a concrete athletic return on investment: “Club support for off‐field life, quality of free time, and time spent in social life predicted 21% of the variance in athletic engagement for early career players.”

To conclude, a dual career is so much more than just a safety net, so much more than just securing livelihood and so much more than just a future tool. Rather, a dual career should be seen as a metaphor for the aforementioned passions, interests and talents and, hence, a metaphor for stability, balance and meaning, during and after a sporting career. Education itself only serves as the 'carrier molecule' of the manifold potentiality of athletes. This happens in the name of a greater cause and leads to a multi-directional impact: in favour of the athlete, in favour of sport, education and economy, and, in favour of the European community."

Find the European Guidebook of Best Practices in Dual Career for free download here.