The Obligatory “Back to School” Article… Sort of…

Person picking which path to take

By: Rolf Wagschal, PhD – Athlete Career Transition Advisor, Canadian Sport Institute Ontario

If you’ve been anywhere near a radio/TV/newspaper/the internet lately, you’ve no doubt been inundated by all the “back to school” advertising taking place. It’s an inevitable opportunity for marketers to push their wares on an ever weary public (and reluctant students everywhere). But along with the hyperbole and clichéd slogans that this time of year brings, it’s also an opportune time to evaluate your plans as an elite athlete. September marks the start of a key cycle for all athletes.

For summer athletes, the competitive season is winding down and one starts to look to the season ahead. You may start to ask yourself some introspective questions as you reflect on the season that was. What will you do this offseason to get better? What are your goals for next season? How will you stay motivated in the intervening months? Conversely, September marks the beginning of the ramp up to competition for winter athletes. Months of dry land training and camps begin to wrap up, and the excitement about the competitive season ahead starts to reach a fever pitch. Will the training and preparation you did in the offseason have the expected payoffs? How will the season unfold? What is your “pinnacle” event and how will you stay on top of training to ensure that you peak at the right time?

How one handles these similarly timed, yet distinct seasonal transitions can be an important factor that determines how well you hold up (both physically, and mentally) over the coming months. As you prepare for the season ahead, the following are a few things to consider as you move forward:

1. What are your goals?
The world of sport is awash with goals, both specific and broad. What are yours? Were they chosen by you, or mandated by a coach? Are they written down? This is a great opportunity to sit down and really think about what it is you want to achieve in the next 3-6 months. Having your goals clearly defined can go a long way to helping give you the direction and motivation to persevere over the next few months.

2. More importantly, what is your plan?
Goals are all well and good, but without a solid plan to put in place that outlines your day-to-day and week-to-week activities, your goals will simply be words on a page. After setting your goals, spend some time to really think about how you plan to achieve them. What will your day to day look like? How much of your schedule will be directed by coaches and how much will be self-directed? What do you need to do to set yourself up to be successful? By putting a plan in place, you’re setting yourself up to succeed.

3. How will you keep yourself fresh?
Managing athletic pursuits with outside interests is a constant struggle for elite athletes. The hours spent training, travelling, and competing often leave little time for much else, and in many ways finding a “balance” isn’t really possible (at least, not in the sense of an even split of time and attention). But putting an effort into integrating – in however small a way – outside interests (be they school, hobbies, or simply some semblance of a social life with “non-sport” friends) can be a key in keeping you fresh as those days spent training/competing start to wear on you. Spend some time taking stock of those activities you enjoy outside of sport, and try and find a way to integrate them into your plan for the upcoming season.

4. What is going on outside of your sport?
It’s not something that athletes often take into account, but it’s often useful to take stock of what is going on in your life outside of your athletic pursuits. As the saying goes “forewarned is forearmed” and by evaluating your other responsibilities and making preparations in advance, you provide yourself with a means to avoid distraction in the coming months. How is rent going to be paid? Travel costs to/from events? Any significant birthdays or social events you want to specifically make time for? Recognize what is going on in advance so that you can make appropriate arrangements.

5. How will you continue to prepare for “life after sport”
When discussing how one plans (and ultimately prepares) for life after sport, I often tell athletes I’m working with “you don’t have to build the house, but it’s important to lay a solid foundation.” It’s not about doing everything all at once, but as I said earlier, integrating activities that will support your long term life/career goals with your immediate athletic pursuits will ultimately help set you up for success – both on and off the field of play. Full time classes may not be feasible given your schedule, but what about online learning? Part time fast-food jobs may be convenient, but internships or volunteer activities in an area of career interest may pay bigger dividends in terms of networking contacts and real world job experience.

All this may seem like a lot to consider, but it needn’t be too much of a chore. Spending some time thinking about these areas and coming up with a plan can pay big dividends over the long run. Distractions will come and go. Motivation will wax and wane. But at the end of the day, successful athletes are the ones who put in the time, not only focusing on their sport, but managing their lives as well.

Good luck in the coming months, whatever they may bring.