Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The role of lifestyle support in the professional era

In a previous post we examined what Lifestyle and Personal Development support is.  In this post, we look at why such support is vital in the modern high performance sport environment, using rugby union as an example.

Lifestyle support is the youngest of the performance support services, and it’s only in the last ten years that lifestyle or personal development advisors have become regular staff members within the high performance sport environment.  In some ways, this is not surprising.  The need for such support has increased with increased professionalism in sport.  The role of the lifestyle or personal development advisor is often to manage or counteract the negative aspects of being a full-time athlete.  The role is often a hidden safety net which allows performance directors to continue on their one-track road to success at any cost.

Encouraging athletes to consider dual careers and to prepare for life after sport is often in direct conflict to the messages portrayed by those who manage performance (encouraging centralized training and full-time sport, and recommending reduced distractions from performance) or the very environment that increased professionalism brings with it (increased time demands as an athlete; increased money and subsequent reduced need to work). 

Counteracting the effects of increased professionalism
If we take Rugby Union – a sport which has shifted from an amateur sport where players were not paid to a big business sport where players have the potential to earn enough as a player to set themselves up for life, in the space of just over a decade – as an example, we quickly see why lifestyle and personal development planning has become so important.

Rugby has traditionally been associated with private schools and third level institutes where, in the armature era, most players had well-paying jobs and secure futures when they retired from the sport.  Quickly, and refreshingly, the sport has become the sport of the masses, both in terms of participants and spectators, but unfortunately, professionalization of the sport has meant that an increasing number of players forego their education, in favor of a sports career which one injury or a bad run of form could end in an instant.

Players are being talent spotted earlier and earlier, reducing the chances that they will have naturally completed their education by the time they reach senior level.  Of course academies insist that players stay in school, and many provide additional tutoring and support to enable players to do so, but the point is that these measures have to be put in place just to maintain equilibrium.

For many players, the lure of big money contracts in France can be too great to ignore, and while living and playing in another country can be a life-changing experience for many, money can’t be the only reason to move.  Players should be encouraged to consider all factors in the decision making process and those who decide that France is for them may need to be supported through the major life change.

The celebrity status associated with being a successful player, and the accessibility of players to the fans via social media can bring about a host of other issues.  Blanket bans of social media can prevent players making stupid mistakes, but do little to increase the player’s marketability or help them develop a unique image.

While it may sound like a bit of a contradiction, professional players tend to have a lot of time on their hands.  This can bring with it a range of potential problems, including boredom, addiction, depression and anti-social behavior. 

Managing lifestyles for performance purposes
Athletes are often busy people with a number of different factors to juggle.  Athletes need to be fresh and well rested to perform at their best, and a well managed lifestyle will help them to perform in their sport and to get the most from potential opportunities that arise.  Talk management, goal setting and decision making skills can help an athlete manage their lifestyle, while managing stress and priortising demands will also have far reaching benefits. 

Preparing for life after sport
We have spoken before about the importance of preparing for life after sport, and encouraging a player/athlete to prepare for life after sport is an important part of lifestyle and personal development support.  Few athletes/players get to choose when they end their careers, particularly in a sport like rugby where career-ending injuries and deselection are common reasons for retiring.  Athletes should be encouraged to plan for life after sport from the very beginning. 

Creating the well-balanced individual
Players and athletes can potentially become trapped in a life where they eat, sleep and breath their sport, with little balance or connection with the ‘real’ world.  True, many transferable skills, including teamwork and goal setting, can be learned in the sporting environment, but players who have nothing to think about other than turning up to training on time, who are surrounded by similarly-minded teammates on a regular basis, and whose only daily decision is chicken or salmon for lunch at the club canteen, can loose touch with reality and quickly forget how to fend for themselves.  They can also quickly become bored.  As lifestyle and personal development consultants, we therefore have a responsibility to expose the players to other experiences and opportunities.  Many sportspeople value the contribution of distractions in their lives.

Recent examples include Irish 800m runner Mark English who, not long after winning the 800m bronze medal at this summer’s European Athletics Championships, stated that he was looking forward to getting back into his Medical studies at UCD:
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/medical-career-offers-refreshing-perspective-for-clinical-english-30521181.html#sthash.Ait3NEZU.dpuf
"I love having something to distract me from all the training during the winter," English said. "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." - See more at: http://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/medical-career-offers-refreshing-perspective-for-clinical-english-30521181.html#sthash.Ait3NEZU.dpuf
"I love having something to distract me form all the training during the winter," English said.  "You can't just be an athlete with nothing going on in your life." (Irish Independent 20/8/14)
Similarly, Jo Pavey, who at 40 won 10,000m gold at the same championships, stated that being a mother to two children helped improve her performance:
The mother of two ... thinks it is her self-satisfied approach to life and flexibility that is key to the form that has finally given her the first major title of her career. (Athletics Weekly 13/8/14)
Having distractions away from sport is particularly beneficial when dealing with injury, and as mentioned previously, having an identity which is not completely dependent on sporting success can help an athlete cope with retirement. 

Social responsibility
Sport has a responsibility to look after its players and athletes and to help create well-rounded individuals who can give back to the community.  Giving athletes the skills to deal with setbacks and to manage mini transitions can help prepare them for life beyond sport.  Athletes should be encouraged to make the most of every opportunity that comes their way.  They should never see competing in sport as a sacrifice or an excuse to put their lives on hold.  They should exit the sport a better person than they entered it.  Player welfare is an important factor, and with an ever increasing number of cases of depression, eating disorders and addiction being reported among high performance sportspeople, it’s clear that even more work needs to be done on that front.

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