3Qs: Life after the Olympics

August 07, 2012

For some Olympic ath­letes, many years of ded­i­ca­tion and hard work is rewarded in the form of a shiny gold medal. But most Olympians fall short and, in some cases, never com­pete again. We asked Jus­tine Siegal, the director of sports part­ner­ships for Sport in Society, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity research center, to explain how elite ath­letes fare in making the tran­si­tion from Olympic com­pe­ti­tion to everyday life.

1. How successfully do former Olympians transition from the role of elite athletes to regular college students or job seekers, and what challenges do they often face?

Elite ath­letes often have dif­fi­culty making the tran­si­tion from their role as ath­lete to that of nonath­lete. Sta­tis­ti­cally speaking, some 20 per­cent of elite ath­letes report the need for assis­tance in making the psy­cho­log­ical adjust­ments nec­es­sary to cope with their career termination.

Helping ath­letes to both pre­pare for and cope with retire­ment has been shown to lower career tran­si­tion dis­tress and facil­i­tate the tran­si­tion process. To help ease the process, ath­letes need to learn how to transfer the skills they have used in sport to a new career.

Exam­ples of trans­fer­able com­pe­ten­cies include goal set­ting, plan­ning and time/​stress/​energy management. The ear­lier the ath­letes pre­pare for life out­side of com­peting, the easier and more suc­cessful that tran­si­tion is likely to be.

2. The number of opportunities for Olympic athletes to endorse products and become company spokespeople has increased over the last several years. How could these opportunities impact an athlete’s identity?

For better or worse, com­mer­cialism is now a part of the Olympic lifestyle. The pur­suit of spon­sor­ship has changed not just the sporting world but the ath­letes them­selves. Ath­letes are the brand — and that brand is expanded through var­ious avenues including print, spon­sor­ships and social media.

This expo­sure does affect the athlete’s iden­tity but to what degree is depen­dent on the athlete’s view of self. The stronger the sense of self-​​identity, the healthier the athlete’s iden­tity will be. By knowing one’s self, ath­letes become better able to ward off the chal­lenges of becoming what others per­ceive them to be instead of who they want to be.

3. Olympic athletes spend the bulk of their youth training for the Games. What kind of psychological impact could failing to achieve their Olympic dreams have on the rest of their lives?

When ath­letes train at an elite level from a young age, the psy­cho­log­ical trauma can be great. Their sense of self is often built around their ath­lete iden­tity. Who they are, what their pur­pose is, and what they do each day is often pre­de­ter­mined for them by their sport aspi­ra­tions. But ath­letes need bal­ance in their lives.

An ath­lete iden­tity must be only one part of a holistic self-​​identity. Ath­letes should under­stand their sport is what they do but it is not who they are. When ath­letes under­stand they are not their sport and that who they are is not wrapped up in wins and losses, there is a greater chance for healthy psy­cho­log­ical devel­op­ment. Being bal­anced helps ath­letes appre­ciate their journey and when needed, find a new destination.

Sport in Society

In 2011, Sport in Society joined forces with the College of Professional Studies (CPS) to create Northeastern University’s unique industry-focused Center serving the fast growing and influential sports industry with high quality educational and social impact solutions.