Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Lifestyle, personal development and welfare support

There's more to high performance sport than training for an event, turning up, and competing.  Athletes, particularly in the professional era, have a lot to think about.  Eating healthily on a tight budget, keeping their finances in order, balancing a social life with an intense training programme, dealing with the media, keeping sponsors happy, handling the expectations of others, coping with long periods of time on the road, building functional relationships with coaches and teammates, keeping anti-doping whereabouts information up-t-date, and dealing with injury and other setbacks, are just some of the additional challenges faced by athletes.  Add to that the everyday demands of human life, work and educational commitments, personal relationships and financial concerns, and the busy life of the athlete, becomes the hectic life of the person.

With all these concerns and issues to balance, it's easy to see why an athlete might benefit from having a member of support staff to keep them on top of their 'life'.  But there is also something else that needs to be considered, and that's where the welfare, career or lifestyle support person really comes into their own.  A sporting career is like few other careers.  A lucky athletes will compete at their peak to somewhere in their early to mid thirties.  Many will finish much earlier, be it due to injury, burnout, lack of funding, or simply reaching their sporting goals.  Usually when individuals retire, they're done with work.  They've earned enough money to see them through their final years, and though a life without work can be difficult for anyone, of any age, to adjust to, the more relaxed pace of life is usually welcomed.  Retiring from a career in your early thirties is a whole different conundrum.  Goals may not have been achieved, few athletes have earned enough money to last the rest of their lives, and having lived on adrenaline and endorphines for many years previously, a massive void normally dominates the outlook of a retired sportsperson.  Retirement in the athlete has been likened to bereavement, and a particularly traumatic one in those who have not prepared for the retirement, or have not been able, for whatever reason, to retire on their terms.

The lifestyle adviser or welfare support person can help the athlete prepare for retirement in a number of ways.  Crucial to the transition is the development of other skills, and preparation for another job or career after sport.  A considerable volume of research supports the pursuit of dual careers from the early days, and though the value of dual careers is widely accepted, the reality is often very different.  Centralised training, increased professionalism, and increased social pressures on athletes makes the pursuit of education, training and employment very difficult for high performance athletes.  Furthermore, the increased money involved in sport often means that athletes don't need to work during the good years, meaning that they have less experience, and less earning potential after sport.  As professional increases, the role of lifestyle and welfare personnel becomes more important.  They are, to some extent, constantly fighting against the system.

Helping with transitions, dual careers and retirement is just part of what the lifestyle, career or welfare support person will help an athlete with.  Councelling and communication skills are important, and by helping an athlete work through their small issues, they are helping build the skills to manage and deal with issues and challenges in the future.  Development of goal setting, time management, conflict resolution and decision making skills will stand to an athlete in future sporting and non-sporting contexts, and though largely relevant to life outside of sport, some of these skills will actually help the athlete in their sporting performance.

This piece from the EIS website outlines how Performance Lifestyles helped Olympic champion rower Katherine Granger achieve sporting success. One of the greatest challenges of this whole area of support, however, is that not all strategies will help to improve performance.  Conflicting roles often exist, particularly if the lifestyle advisor or welfare officer is employed directly by the governing body or funding agency.  How do you support an potential Olympic medallist with depression would be best to spend time away from the support, when the sport as a whole, and ultimately your position, is dependent on medals won at the Olympics.  Obviously, the athlete's welfare is always top of your agenda, but measurement of your performance can be far from clear-cut.

While nutritionists are universally called nutritionists, and sports psychologists are known as sports psychologists across the board, different terms are often used to describe the people who provide the crucial lifestyle support to athletes.  UK Sport, and relevant home country sports institutes (EIS, SINI, SIS and SportWales), refer to the area as Performance Lifestyles, delivered by Performance Lifestyle advisors.  The Irish Institute of Sport run a Performance Transition Support Programme that is "designed to help [athletes] recover, refocus and re-energise" after an Olympic Games, and prepare for the next phase of their life. They refer to the area as Athlete Lifestyle.  TASS refer to the area as Education and Lifestyle Support; The Australian Institute of Sport deliver support through their Personal Excellence (PE) and Athlete Career and Education (ACE) programmes and High Performance Sport New Zealand runs an Athlete Life Programme delivered by Athlete Life Advisors. The England Cricket Board and the Professional Cricket Association run a comprehensive programme delivered by their Personal Development and Welfare Team, while the support professional rugby players receive through the RPA is delivered by Player Development Managers. Support personnel on some university scholarship programmes are simply called mentors.  The skills required by these professionals, the CPD opportunities available, and routes into this type of work will be covered in a future post.

Most professional athletes have access to lifestyle support through their national governing body or professional players association.  Athletes who are not yet at that level, and who would benefit from support, can contact us at Athlete Life Development to discuss and arrange one-to-one or small group support sessions.

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