Focus on the Foundation, Not the House

Lego pieces building a wall

By: Rolf Wagschal, PhD, Game Plan & Athlete Career Transition Advisor

When working with athletes, a lot of the time I’m faced with the same question: “How do I balance my life inside of sport with my life outside of sport? It seems impossible!” In a lot of ways, the athletes are correct – finding a perfect balance is, in many ways, almost impossible. The demands that elite sport puts on an individual – from training, competing, travel, even to the diet they follow – leave little room for much else. That said, there are some basic ideas that can assist athletes in leading a more well-rounded, and ultimately successful, life.

Forget Balance, Think integration
Early on in my work as a Game Plan Advisor, I was told by many athletes that “balance” doesn’t really exist in the world of elite sport. And they’re not wrong. In order to pursue success at the elite level, one must necessarily commit to his or her chosen sport at the expense of many different things that a lot of people take for granted. One’s social life, family life, and often times their career outside of sport must adapt to the demands of their sport. That said, commitment shouldn’t be synonymous with isolation.

There is room for other activities; it’s just a matter of understanding exactly how that will look. Originally when I referred to balance, I wasn’t implying that there had to be a 50/50 split between activities. That subtlety was often lost on athletes though, so I found a better way to frame this was in terms of integration. All of our lives – high performance or not – involve integrating various, sometimes disparate activities. Family, work, sport, friends, hobbies, diet, rest – these are all things we manage to integrate in our daily lives to some extent. Some of those activities take up more time. Others must necessarily be cut back on. But they are all there. In many ways, having activities outside of sport integrated into our lives is important, since it allows us time to recharge mentally, and come back to sport focused when it matters.

Those activities away from sport will vary from person to person, but it’s important to identify something that you’re interested in, and allow yourself some time to engage with it. Whether it’s saving an hour a day to read a book or magazine that interests you, or reserving some time in your week to catch up with a close friend, coming up with a realistic plan to integrate those activities is an important part of managing one’s life and staying fresh while competing.

Focus on the Foundation
In a lot of circumstances (especially when it comes to thinking about, or planning for life after sport), an athlete’s plans are somewhat involved. Perhaps they need to gain job experience. Maybe it’s a return to school. In some cases, they simply don’t know what they want to do after sport. And that’s fine. But putting off any and all of those considerations until an athlete is done with sport is often times counterproductive, since the closer to “retirement” one gets, the bigger a distraction the question of “What next?” can potentially become.

So how does one find that ability to integrate those activities into an already busy schedule? In those situations I like to recommend athletes focus “building a foundation, rather than the house.” What I mean by that, is that it can often be just as productive to focus on the background activities that will help set them up for success. That way, once they put their plan in place, they can hit the ground running.

Looking for job experience, but can’t commit to an employer? Look for volunteer activities. They’re typically much more flexible, and can often expose you to a lot of different roles in a given industry. Planning on going back to school but can’t commit to full time, or even part time school? Research the exact program(s) you want to apply for, and make sure you have all the background materials in place (transcripts, reference letters, pre-requisite courses) in place for when the time comes to apply. Also, being aware of the application process (including deadlines) is super important, and can be done on your own time. Not sure what the future will hold or what you’d like to do in the long run? In many cases this can be the most stressful, but also offers the most flexibility. Engaging with career exploration is equal part experiential and intellectual exercise. Speaking with a career transition advisor can often go a long way to start you down the path though.

Overall, there is always something that can be done, whether it’s for an hour a day or an hour a week. The time commitment is less important than simply taking the step towards planning for life after sport. As long as you’re building a strong foundation, the house will come in time.