The Athlete Journey: Planning for Life After Sport and Finding Purpose Again
By his own admission, Ben Gollings was shaken to the core.
It was 2011 and Gollings, a standout for England’s national rugby sevens – a form of rugby that features two, seven-a-side teams playing seven-minute halves – was completely focused on competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where his sport was destined to make its first appearance.
Even though he was 32, he had good reason to believe England still wanted him. Gollings was a legend in his sport, the career leader in points in the World Rugby Sevens Series and holder of several other individual records accumulated over an impressive 70 tournaments.
However, an unassuming trip out to the carpark of the team’s training facility spelled the end of his international career.
“We had just finished a successful season and I was in negotiations for a new contract,” Gollings said. “Sevens was going to be an Olympic event and I really wanted to play there. And then, I had a two-minute conversation with a team official in the carpark, and it was all over. They told me they weren’t going to re-sign me. That was it, that’s the end, there’s no place for you on this team.”
Gollings had always known there would be an end to his rugby career. It’s a demanding, full-contact sport and it does take a toll on the players. Still, it was hard at first to wrap his mind around what had happened.
“I’ve always known that you’re never fully in control of your fate as an athlete in a team-sport environment. Still, it was a bitter pill to swallow after everything I gave to the team. It did affect me for quite a while afterwards, a lot more than I thought it was going to.”
Every year, athletes across the world in sports of all kinds face similar challenges when their athletic careers start to wind down. High-functioning and determined, athletes spend so much time training and competing that it’s easy to lose sight of the need to plan for life after sports.
For Gollings, that stress came fully into view after he left international rugby behind. Although he had the credentials to serve as a top-flight coach, he also longed for a career in business that would allow him to grow and experience new professional challenges.
“When you’re in your sport, you have clarity about your life,” he said. “When it stopped, and I didn’t focus on that anymore, I sort of meandered.”
That meandering took him to coaching positions all over the world: the United States, Sri Lanka and – eventually – Australia. Fortunately, along the way, he was able to connect with some friends in the U.K. who were developing new software to help monitor and manage athletes with concussions. It allowed him to get in on the ground floor of an exciting new company, broaden his career prospects as well as develop his own coaching business.
Still, Gollings cannot help but wonder if he would have spent less time “meandering” if he had specific transition support to help him find stability in the immediate aftermath of his sudden retirement. In large part, that’s why in addition to his new business venture, he’s also hoping to provide support to other athletes who may be going through the same challenges he did.
“Some sort of transition program would have been invaluable,” he said from Australia. “I had a lot of friends and family to support me but from a business perspective, I didn’t have that network and I have a lot of friends and former teammates who have really struggled with that transitional journey.”
Struggle is a word many transitioning athletes use. Pedro Yang tells people that he successfully navigated into his dream job “scanning job ads to find something that fit my profile best. But it’s a challenge. After a sports career, professional athletes are suddenly competing against people who have a lot more time to prepare and develop for their careers.”
After representing Guatemala in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Yang focused his badminton career on competitions at the Pan American level. Retirement would eventually come following the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. He had competed at the highest levels of his sport for a remarkable 13 years.
During that time, Yang said he tried to devote some time to planning for a post-competition career. He completed an undergraduate degree in Marketing and a BA (hons) in Business Administration, but it was still hard to build a resume with specific job experience while devoting the time necessary to keep his badminton skills sharp.
“After I retired, I went primarily into coaching like a lot of athletes,” Yang said. “But as well, I had started to take steps to build my skills and professional experiences to ensure I had opportunities other than on the playing field.”
This included eight years on the board of the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission and as a facilitator for Athlete Career Programme, a partnership with the Adecco Group, one of the world’s leading human resources providers. During that time, he was focused on the welfare of Olympians and helping athletes across Latin America and other regions prepare for a successful transition for life after competition.
Eventually Yang added enough to his resume that he was able to secure a job in the LEGO Group as International Competition Manager for the world’s biggest Robotics Competition. Eventually, he would move on to become a Fan Integration Manager within the LEGO Group.
“I’ve been blessed to be where I am today, but if I had to do it all over again, I would definitely have started earlier,” Yang said. “As early as possible is the way to go for athletes. Promising athletes as young as 16 years old must realize, one day all this will be over, and they must be ready to sacrifice even more for a successful transition for life after sport. Even winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games isn’t enough to guarantee you a job.”
The reluctance of athletes to start planning a post-sport career earlier has always frustrated Arianna Criscione, an accomplished professional women’s soccer player who played internationally for Italy and for several professional teams across Europe. She retired in June 2021 after a two-year stint with Paris Saint-German, one of the most prestigious women’s football clubs in the world.
There was a very good chance that Criscione could have been in retirement two years earlier, if not for a chance upgrade on a flight back to Paris from Budapest, Hungary that put her in a seat beside Bruno Cheyrou, then director of the PSG women’s program.
Criscione said the two discussed a wide range of football issues, including her deep and growing interest in the business side of the sport. By the time the plane landed, Cheyrou had offered her a chance to continue playing for PSG and supporting sponsorships and business development for the women’s team.
“It was great to continue playing but it was really important that I got to keep working on the business of the sport,” Criscione said. “I could never figure out why more clubs weren’t taking advantage of the business interests of their players. Many of us are very interested in business and want to work on that while also playing.”
Criscione does not just preach the “early start” approach to post-career planning; she started laying the groundwork for her career in business right alongside her playing career. Prior to joining PSG, she completed a master’s degree with the Football Business Academy in Geneva, Switzerland.
Today, she has taken all her experience on and off the pitch and applied it to an entirely new challenge as director of women’s football at N3XT Sports, a Barcelona-based global sports consulting firm that specializes in digital transformation and innovation.
Criscione said that when she talks with younger athletes, she always stresses the need to make good use of their time away from training and competition. Although elite sport is demanding, Criscione said she could always find time to devote to education and development.
“Every athlete has an expiration date,” she said. “No matter who you are: Ronaldo, Messi, Steph Curry. It happens to all of us. I’ll always be an athlete no matter what. But we all have to have more in our lives than that.”