Interview: Ben Paszkowec, Transition & Performance Psychologist at ACT

When an athlete retires from sport, it’s a time for them to celebrate a decade’s worth of success at the top, and a chance to savour a diary free of punishing training schedules. At least, that’s the perception. 

The reality is often very different: after years performing under the spotlight, being released from the high-pressured environment of professional sport can be an athlete’s toughest challenge. For every tale of a star’s terrible fall from grace, countless stories exist of ex-athletes struggling to come to terms with living a ‘normal’ life.

Sports transition specialists, Athlete Career Transition (ACT) exist to make this change as safe and smooth as possible, giving the right support when it’s needed most so athletes find a second career that’s as successful and rewarding as their first.

ACT’s professional transition and performance psychologist, Ben Paszkowec, plays a crucial role in this process. Ben left sport the hard way after his footballing career was cut short by injury. Through ACT, Ben applies his experience and knowledge to coach athletes through retirement and into employment that will satisfy them as elite performers.

What psychological pitfalls may athletes face as they approach retirement?

BP: It differs from athlete to athlete, but going from one environment into a completely new can mean losing a major support structure – such as in team sports. If you’re used to going to work with your team mates every day, this transition can feel like losing family.

Loss of routine is a big one too – most athletes know precisely what they’re going to be eating, where and when; what they’re going to wear; where they’ll be and with whom. Losing that structure is a huge thing.

Many retired athletes speak of not being able to replicate the buzz of training or competition; in more challenging cases it can result in family or financial difficulties, or problems with addiction. Shorter-term consequences concern losing social groups, fitness and social recognition; one minute you’re the talk of the town, the next minute no-one cares.

A broader identity and scope on life can soften the blow when retirement falls. Just as importantly, seeing what else is out there can provide an outlet, enabling the athlete to gain perspective if they’re going through difficult times whether that’s within or beyond the parameters of a sports career.

How can ACT help athletes that are nearing retirement?

ACT provides a pathway for athletes from elite sport into another high performance environment. We work with business partners to source individuals that are nearing retirement, with a view to placing those athletes within the company.

The company in question will have a remit of the person they’re looking for. This will be informed by the culture the prospective worker will have to integrate into, the people and the values of the new working environment. Working from this brief, ACT connects with athletes that match the profile to create a pool of suitable candidates. We then combine CVs with psychometric testing to align the sports man or woman to the most appropriate roles.

Currently we’re working with eight athletes that competed in the Rio Olympics whom have gone on to a six-month internship with global services provider, EY.

The nature of sport means athletes typically can’t go on at the top level until 60 or 65 years of age like the public would in a standard job. In pro sport, retirement usually falls around mid-20s to mid-30s, possibly up to 40s, after which there’s still a lot of life left to live.

The transition can be a daunting prospect; many athletes will have been involved in sport their entire lives so having to think about retirement can be very stressful for them. At ACT we work to eradicate those feelings and help them make the career switch as healthily as possible.

Can you tell us more about yourself and your role as sports psychologist?

After professional football I studied to Masters level in psychology, and have since dedicated my career to giving psychological support to athletes. I look after the transition support package within ACT, much of which is geared towards psychology. A great deal of research exists around the effects of an athlete’s career transition on an individual’s well-being and its impact on their overall performance, whether that’s their athletic performance or their performance in a new working environment outside of sport.

Generally, the athletes will have spent their formative years in really high-performance environments so we do our best to put them in similarly high-performance business environments. We try to transfer as many of the athletes’ skills as possible so that they can really push on. It’s a holistic approach, so the person behind the athlete is also given the optimum level of support possible.

We also try to educate the business mentors with whom the athletes will be working on a day-to-day basis, touching on the effects of an athlete’s transition, and hold dedicated sessions with the athletes to work on transferable skills; lifestyle management and goal-setting, for example.

We have a transition support structure in place, a programme that is athlete led and driven so to best meet and support all requirements throughout the athlete’s life and development.

What makes an athlete so suited to a high performance business environment?

Elite athletes typically progress quite quickly into a high level environment at an early age. These high pressure environments demand commitment, sacrifice, dedication and motivation, each of which must be demonstrated on a daily basis if the Olympic Games are to be reached, for example.

An athlete’s career progress goes on under intense scrutiny, often in the media spotlight and on a global scale every day. Athletes get used to this high pressure environment and develop the elite skills required to perform at a consistently high level in spite of what’s going on around them. They become highly resilient and adaptable as individuals as they work to retain the edge over their competitors.

It’s exactly these skill sets that big companies look out for; they’re after individuals with proven leadership and teamwork skills which can percolate through the organisation to all staff members.

Are mechanisms in place across sports industries to get athletes thinking about life after retirement?

The support that athletes get can differ between sports and from person to person. Some sports are forward-thinking and provide more help, whereas others provide less help. For many athletes, sport will be there full identity. Such is the focus on training and goals, that some believe that dwelling on any other issue – such as retirement – may compromise commitment or take away that competitive edge.

On the other hand, athletes are people with family and friends and obviously they’ll have a life beyond the arena. In this respect some sports people are more forward-thinking than others who may become anxious about looking at life beyond the athletic bubble. In my opinion, the more proactive an athlete can be with preparing for the end of that first career, the better.

A sports career can end in the blink of an eye, be it through injury or a contract ending. There are no guarantees of a twenty-year career bookended by a big goodbye and a lucrative media deal.

If an athlete is able to retain a separation between their athletic career and normal life, thinking about life after sport can become less stressful. ‘What am I going to do if I get injured and have to retire?’ That’s the kind of question that initiates planning which leads to learning about what else is out there in the world.

Finding answers can have a positive impact on sporting performance, as it eliminates a sense of the unknown; performance and well-being are constantly interacting. Ultimately it’s better to have control over your career transition because it means you know what you’re doing.

What retirement advice would you give to athletes who are currently in their careers?

Different sports and sports institutions will have people in place to look after athletes’ career prospects or to help sports people manage their lifestyles. My advice would be to engage as much as possible with stake holders, if for nothing else than finding the peace of mind that comes with looking at life beyond sport, which alone will bring performance benefits.

If you’re going through injury or deselection, you might find yourself with nothing else to focus your mind on. This can turn into a vicious circle if you can’t step back and engage in an alternative interest or passion. If your sole focus is on feeling bad because you’re out of the game, it can only impact negatively on your training, your mentality and your performance when things get moving again.

Thinking about life after sport can become so scary, it becomes almost a taboo subject. My recommendation is to enjoy time with friends and family as much as possible, to investigate educational pursuits and to allow yourself personal development. Maybe there are work placements you can look into, other forms of work experience or other occupational outlets you could pursue, each of which would be valuable in terms of opening your eyes to life after athletics.

Why do businesses need to take on athletes?

The firms that take on athletes gain unbelievably talented individuals and proven high achievers – people who are dedicated, relentlessly hard-working, resilient and determined to push on with their lives to make the most of the opportunities they have.

There’s no question that athletes will excel and do the best they can when they go into business internships. ACT helped to source eight Olympic athletes for a business internship with EY, which among other things is putting the issue of retirement from pro sport on a global pedestal, helping to raise awareness in a way that demonstrates how business can benefit when they utilise what these remarkable individuals have to offer.

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