When athletes leave a sport, I often see how the skills they have acquired or the qualities we work to develop can transfer to the demands of a new setting so effectively. 

A recent example of this came from a chance meeting I had a few weeks ago with an athlete I used to work with in cycling who is now pursuing a career in nursing. She explained to me that many people on her course, who were of a similar age to herself, had been struggling with the long hours, tight deadlines and the various demands of placements in different hospitals. A large proportion of her friends had even dropped out altogether. 

Yet I was struck by how relaxed and content she had seemed about it all. She explained that for her, it was about taking each day at a time and getting the most out of each opportunity to learn, and that she could only try her best if she wanted to fulfil her ambition. It was about what she could control; it was about the process.  Elite athletes often learn, or are encouraged to learn, this kind of mindset as a means of dealing with the many pressures they face; to remain focused on how they can achieve their targets rather than the long-term goals themselves.

For me, this is an example of the resilience athletes develop: resilience developed not just through the many setbacks they face throughout their careers but resilience for managing day-to-day stresses.  Some become so good at it that they don't just learn to manage pressure, but to thrive in it, and I think this ability often gives them the confidence to take on any challenge when they leave the sport.   

One skill which has perhaps been the most easily identifiable as transferable to a new field is leadership and I have seen a number of examples of this during my time in Para swimming specifically where classification changes or degenerative disorders can sometimes cut a career in the sport short.  Many of these athletes have gone into coaching roles, whether in sport, business, education or lifestyle management, and in some instances this is despite entering the sport with relatively little by way of the qualities which often define a good leader – confidence, communication skills and empathy. 

This isn’t to say that their characters were fundamentally changed through their participation in sport but many of them learned the value of effective communication in their time as elite athletes and also learned to empathise with the needs of their coaches and team mates in order to get the best out of themselves and others.

“..athletes build the confidence and self-belief to take these skills further, to help others and to find purpose in the next stage of their careers.”

Through effective communication and the achieving of results, athletes build the confidence and self-belief to take these skills further, to help others and to find purpose in the next stage of their careers. I think it’s often the development of this range of skills, coupled with other innate abilities, which helps to create the effective leaders we see emerge from elite sport today. For me, this illustrates the transformational power of skill development, demonstrated here through sport, but applicable to almost all future opportunities open to those who take part.

For further insights on the topics raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s latest research on leadership and sport.