Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
Striking the Balance: How Off-Field Gain Can Boost On-Field Game
By Chris Pomfret (PSY0000966671)
Parents of young athletes will often ask us – with varying degrees of seriousness – how they might encourage/support/force/trick/bribe their kids into taking their schoolwork seriously, or at the very least doing something to prepare for some sort of career once they ‘hang up the gloves.’ Understandably, young athletes can struggle to see what relevance studying or exploring long-term work options has to achieving their sporting dreams. Those Mental Toughness Digest (MTD) readers living in Australia or New Zealand may have noticed increasing coverage in the media about the importance of developing a ‘sport/life balance’ for those athletes competing professionally or at the elite level (and in turn for those young people involved in development pathways, or amateur athletes aiming to reach the top one day). We at Condor Performance welcome the growing awareness of the important – yet underappreciated – role of ‘off-field’ matters in not only safeguarding an athlete’s long-term future, but also enhancing their performance ‘on-field.’ So let’s consider the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence and in particular a target for continual improvement which we call T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. But firstly…
… I’m sure you’ll agree that playing careers are short at most levels for most athletes in most sports. At the elite end of the spectrum, there is a growing body of research that demonstrates the need for athletes to either be participating in a ‘dual career’ (a non-sporting career), or to be taking steps to prepare for their post-athletic career while still participating in their sport. Most competitive athletes retire at a young age, which not only impacts on their lifestyle and their finances but also ‘bigger picture’ areas such as their sense of self, their social identity, and their sense of direction in life. In US college sport, for instance, approximately 1% of collegiate athletes become professional athletes, and the average professional sports career only lasts around 3.5 years (1). One area where the US college system appears to ‘have it right’ is that athletes are required to maintain grades whilst studying in order to play. Traditionally this has not been the case elsewhere in the world, where club-based sporting systems are prevalent or professional development pathways are separated from the education sector. This has changed in recent times however, with athlete education and career guidelines now being set by national governing bodies across the globe.
MTD readers in Australia and New Zealand will probably be aware that many of the major sporting codes in these countries now require professional and semi-professional athletes to be studying or undertaking vocational training as part of their contracts. In the past, professional clubs or franchises have sometimes ‘paid lip service’ towards career/personal/welfare development or have even been deeply sceptical due to a belief that their athletes should be focusing solely on improving on-field rather than off-field. To be fair, this hasn’t been helped by a tendency for many athletes to prioritise their sporting activities above all other pursuits. Not surprisingly, athletes choosing to maintain a non-sporting activity or placing equal importance on the alternate activity achieve better jobs and are happiest with their life beyond sport than those who focus exclusively on sport (2). But for those of you still playing or coaching in your sport, take note: some research has suggested that engagement in dual career activities may actually lead to a performance benefit for athletes. This may in part be due a sense of balance in life and a sense of security from preparing for the future (3). Interestingly, a recent study showed only 31.9% of elite Olympic athletes decide to follow the ‘sport only’ career path (2). A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League suggested that club culture supporting whole person development was associated with on-field performance rather than being irrelevant or even competing against performance (3). From a psychological research perspective it’s relatively ‘early days’ as far as identifying the direct impact of dual career development on elite level performance but it will be absolutely fascinating to see how this develops and we might revisit this area here in the MTD in the near future.
Now let’s take a step back to the Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance excellence. You may recall from the Metuf mental method Simplifying It that a key component of one’s best possible performance on-field involves constantly improving off-field. The Lifestyle Choices pillar of performance can be broken down into a number of targets for improvement, including (but not limited to) Fun, Nutrition, Sleep, and – you guessed it – T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A.
T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. stands for ‘The Other Thing I Want to Be Excellent At.’ This essentially involves something outside of your chosen sport that provides you with:
- A sense of reward
- A purpose in life
- Something to challenge and stimulate you
- Something to develop skills and competencies for self-improvement
- Activities to take your mind off training, practicing, playing or competing
In other words, T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. helps to provide that elusive ‘sport/life balance.’
As the growing body of research shows, when T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. is defined by an athlete as an academic goal (such as completing a course of study) or as a vocational goal (such as working towards a long-term profession) there are significant rewards to be gained during their playing days and in the years that follow. What this research also shows, however, is that there are a range of barriers to successfully balancing sporting and non-sporting career progression. Chief of these is the issue of ineffective time management (2), along with a lack of understanding or support for dual career development at the family, club or organisational level (4).
Outside of the study and employment fields, some other areas that Condor Performance clients typically tell us they want to be excellent at include family; hobbies; music; travel; church/spiritual life; community; art; personal development; and more. Through Simplifying It they learn how to break down the pillars of performance excellence and in turn understand how T.O.T.I.W.B.E.A. can drive them to greater heights. Athletes of all ages are pleasantly surprised at this discovery and as for Mum and Dad: you’re welcome.
- Tshube, T. & Feltz, D.L. (2015). The relationship between dual-career and post-sport career transition among elite athletes in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 109-114.
- Lopez de Subijana, C., Barriopedro, M. & Conde, E. (2015). Supporting dual career in Spain: Elite athletes’ barriers to study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 57-64.
- Pink, M., Saunders, J. & Stynes, J. (2015). Reconciling the maintenance of on-field success with off-field player development: A case study of a club culture within the Australian Football League. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 98-108.
- Ryba, T.V. et al. (2015). Dual career pathways of transnational athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Elsevier), 21, 125-134.