Over recent years, in the UK, certain environments have developed a reputation for supporting the athletic and educational development of athletes. For example, schools, colleges, or universities that are becoming hubs for high-performing athletes. The advantage in attending a dual career environment is the enhanced support athletes will receive towards managing their education and sporting demands. For many practitioners working within these environments, they will question how they can better support athletes whilst maximising the resources they have.

Recent research investigated seven different environments across Europe in their ability to support dual career athlete development. All these environments had their own approach to supporting athletes that depended on the education level they were targeting, the type of athletes they had within the environment, and the resources they had available. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all model. However, the research was able to identify ten essential features. Practitioners are encouraged to consider the solutions to incorporate these key features within their environment.

1. There is a person or team of people that are dedicated to dual career support.

A minimal requirement of a dual career environment is to have a team or person who is responsible for coordinating sport and education for athletes. This team can act as a central point of contact for dual career athletes, rather than having to contact the sport practitioners and education providers separately.

Example from practice:

A Swedish university support team included a dual career coordinator, a performance team coordinator, and coaches within their high-performance centres, working side-by-side in a shared office, communicating daily, and having divided their roles and responsibilities.

2. Athletes have access to the appropriate expert support.

Successful environments must consider the support needs of the athletes they work with, such as nutrition, physiotherapy, sport psychology, and medical services, and determine access or a referral pathway for this support. It is also important that the support related to the education and sporting level the athletes are currently at.

Example from practice:

TASS provide athletes with access to their “core services” of lifestyle, nutrition, sport psychology, physiotherapy and medical support services or workshops. These services are delivered by qualified staff at accredited TASS delivery sites.

3. There is collaboration across the whole environment.

The staff from the sport and education domains of a dual career environment are required to communicate with each other and coordinate support. Regular communication can ensure that dual career athletes are not provided with conflicting demands or information.

Example from practice:

Within the Belgian system, a representative from the elite sport school, the sports federation and the boarding schools regularly communicate and work together to solve athletes dual career issues.

4. There is an understanding of dual career from the whole environment.

For point 3 to be achieved, it also requires the sport and education domains to understand the benefits and demands of a dual career and be willing to support dual career athletes. This means that dual career athletes are supported to prioritise sport or education at different time points depending upon their key priorities.

Example from practice:

Some sport organisations within the UK have developed links with education providers due to recognizing the benefits of dual career within and beyond sport.

5. Athletes have role models and mentors.

Athletes can benefit from direct support (mentorship) or through learning their behavioural expectations by watching older athletes in the environment (observational learning). This can be facilitated through a culture of willingness to help and support athletes within the environment. As opposed to a culture of competitiveness and rivalry that could lead athletes to be unwilling to share their experiences.

Example from practice:

A Danish university setup a virtual community, through which stories of older athletes experiences where shared. These athletes tended to be alumni of the university program to support the feeling of a shared experience with the current athletes.

6. The environment supports the whole person.

A dual career environment should consider the sporting, educational and personal development of the individuals they support. This holistic approach includes the short- and long-term development of dual career athletes. For this to be achieved, members of the environment from different domains (i.e., sport or education) must recognise the demands of the other domains. Rather than sport focusing solely on sport and education focusing solely on education.

Example from practice:

In a UK university example, S&C coaches took an interest in their athlete’s education by regularly asking them how they were progressing. This approach also means that any issues could be raised within the dual career support team (fulfilling point 3).

7. The environment empowers athletes.

An approach that empowers athletes provides them with regular opportunity to manage their own dual career and make their own decisions, rather than an excess of control over decision-making by staff and no active involvement of the athletes. The best environments will carefully balance this with appropriate support and provide athletes with the information to make these decisions. This approach can also support athletes to develop key transferable skills, such as self-responsibility and decision-making.

Example from practice:

A Danish university program adjusted their support to incrementally provide athletes with more responsibility for managing their dual career. For example, new athletes are approached and receive proactive support from the support team in the first year. Following this, the responsibility lies with the student-athlete to contact the dual career support team if they need additional support or flexibility.

8. There are individual, flexible solutions to athletes demands.

Due to each individual having their own ambitions in sport, education and their personal life, it is important for dual career environments to enable athletes to pursue their own dual career pathway. This includes studying the subjects they are interested in. With many different individual pathways, not all solutions will benefit all athletes. Therefore, practitioners need to be flexible in the support that they provide.

Example from practice:

A national governing body in the UK, recognised that athletes in their junior pathway need to focus on their education during exam periods and therefore reduce the demands placed on them for a short period of time.

9. There is care of athlete’s mental health and wellbeing.

It is important to recognise the responsibility of dual career environments, not only towards athlete’s sport and educational development, but also for their wellbeing and mental health. The best environments encouraged athletes to communicate their mental health concerns and there was an openness for talking about mental health, as opposed to a “Gladiator” or stoic culture of: sport is hard, and athletes should toughen up.

Example from practice:

In a Spanish sport program, a clinical psychologist and sport psychologist were embedded in the environment and responsible for mental health issues. Athletes could get access to them and support providers could refer to them.

10.  There is an open approach to the development of the environment.

Since there is not a one-size-fits-all model for dual career environments and individuals require unique solutions to their support, it is important for environments to learn from what is successful and what can be improved. This requires regular evaluations of environments from various stakeholders, including athletes and practitioners. It might also include the tracking of athletes in their educational and sporting development to evaluate success. Practitioners can also consider their own effectiveness and the on-going professional development they require to continually develop.

Example from practice:

In a British university, the staff were open to feedback and evaluation, they engaged with sports research conducted at the university, and evaluated their efforts at the end of each academic year to adapt the support provided.

For more information on this topic area, an article titled ‘Ten Essential Features of European Dual Career Development Environments: A Multiple Case Study’ (Storm et al., 2021) is available in pre-print version in Psychology of Sport and Exercise journal - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1469029221000364