Although we often hear about how challenging a dual career at university can be for athletes, what happens when they approach the end of their final year and get ready to leave the university bubble?
Athletes encounter various points in their careers where they must make difficult decisions about their future pathway. These include whether they should migrate to a new country, start university, move to a national training centre, drop out of a talent pathway, move to a new club, and many more. However, one of the big transitions that athletes face that can significantly change their pathway is when they leave university. Athlete’s may have been combining their sport with education for many years, have received various support services through their university, and have status as a top athlete within the university environment. These factors can make this transition complicated for athletes.
In the UK, a growing number of talented and elite level athletes are choosing to follow a university dual career pathway. Several British universities are now high-performance centres where athletes can receive a range of services to support their holistic development. A study from 2018 found there to be as many as 95 university sport scholarship programmes now in operation in the UK, meaning there is a lot of support on offer for talented and elite UK athletes. Compared to the US, where statistics suggest as many as 99% of collegiate athletes don't progress further in their sport, what do UK athletes do when they leave university? Considering that the main body of elite sport development takes place within an external sport club system that lies separate to education, does this mean many athletes continue with their elite sport development?
What pathways do UK athletes take post-university?
When UK athletes leave university, there are many routes that they take, including:
· Postgraduate and sport pathway (UK or abroad) – some athletes will decide to continue their university journey by staying in postgraduate study. In some cases, postgrad study can provide more flexibility for athletes and is a great opportunity to continue their personal development. However, with this comes even more responsibility to co-ordinate independent study. If athletes are only motivated to stay at university to further their sports career (through the receipt of specialist services), this could lead to non-completion. Postgrad opportunities in the USA are also attracting many UK athletes. This can be an exciting new experience for athletes, however, this route may be suited to specific athlete populations. Ongoing research on US pathways (being conducted by TASS) suggests that different NGB's have 'different approaches' to how they support athletes who go to the USA (stay tuned for updates on this work!).
· Full time sport (funded pathway) – some athletes will exit university programmes and enter either professional club programmes or UK sport funded pathways. This can be a positive route for athletes, but they should be aware of the new challenges that being a ‘full-time’ athlete may bring. These include pressures to perform, potential instability if they are dropped from the programme/contract, and no longer having other focus areas that could be a ‘positive distraction’.
· Full time sport (the make or break year) – a common route for athletes who are not quite at the top level in their sport, is to put their all into their sport for one year to see if they can break onto a funded pathway or gain a professional contract. This is often with the financial backing of parents. This can be a difficult experience for athletes, if they don’t have enough support to progress, they can become stagnant, and it can impact on their wellbeing. Athletes who take this route often have the perception that if they don't become full-time athletes, they have 'failed'.
· Work and sport dual career pathway – another popular route for athletes is to start full or part time work alongside their training and competitions. Often this is a challenging route as there are few jobs that provide enough flexibility for athletes to fulfil their sporting commitments. Many athletes will choose a vocation that is not in line with their ‘vocational career goals’. The biggest challenge of this path is the loss of support services that were provided through the university environment. Many support programmes in the UK are connected to education and almost no support is available for ‘working athletes’.
· Dropping out of sport and taking an alternate route– for some athletes, the end of university signals the start of a new journey, such as full-time work and retirement from high-level sport. This 'double transition' means adapting to significantly new norms and roles. Interestingly, this pathway is often taken involuntarily (due to injury or lack of opportunities for example), which can impact on wellbeing, and also mean that athlete's are not prepared for the next step. Sport eventually becomes a recreational activity for these athletes.
We are now aware of the pathways that athletes could take, but what is important for practitioners to understand is what factors underpin athlete’s reasons for taking specific routes.
Motives vary amongst athletes and link to specific pathways. They include:
· Qualify for major upcoming major events (e.g., Olympic Games)
· Lack of dual career opportunities post-university
· Vocational career aspirations
· Financial status & funding availability
· Athletic career aspirations
· Motivation and enjoyment
· Physical status (injured vs. good physical health)
· Social support (e.g., parents supportive of route)
· Physical support (e.g., S&C, physio)
· Perception that any other route would be 'failure'
If athletes make the wrong decision about their post-university pathway, it could negatively impact wellbeing, and lead to stagnation in their sport and future vocational career.
Key advice for stakeholders:
· Practitioners should support athletes to critically reflect on their motivations and future goals when they are about to complete university and come to a decision around what their most suitable pathway should be.
· Due to the important influence of specific stakeholders, parents, NGB’s, and university stakeholders should use a collaborative approach to support the athlete to critically examine their opportunities post-university.
· The risks of taking a ‘make or break year’ as a full-time athlete after university without funding secured should be communicated to athletes.
· National governing bodies (NGBs) should consider how they can incorporate dual career opportunities into their centralised programmes for athletes who have completed university (e.g., do training times mean athlete's cannot work alongside training).
· Universities are advised to offer specialised postgraduate athlete support programmes (e.g., postgrad athletes may require more remote support if they are not on campus as much).
Key advice for athletes:
· Take your time to prepare - don't leave university and assume things will fall into place.
· Discuss your university exit plan with your sport, university practitioners, and family. Together, you will come to an optimal decision about your pathway.
· Reflect on your motives and what's important to you - discuss these with your performance lifestyle advisor.
For more information on this topic area, an article titled ‘Pathway decisions during the student-athlete transition out of university in the United Kingdom’ (Vickers & Morris, 2021) will be available in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology in the coming weeks. Watch out for the release at @InsightTASS.