If you were to ask a room full of former professional athletes what it was like immediately after retirement, you would be hard pressed to find someone saying the transition was easy. Playing sports for a living is hard work, but it’s a different kind of work. It doesn’t always involve getting up at the crack of dawn, heading into the office early and staying late, or looking at a computer screen and talking on the phone all day. Though the two worlds are very different from one another, this doesn’t mean that all former athletes lack the skills business professionals have learned and developed over time in their respective industries. In fact, having a long career in competitive sports equips an athlete with an abundance of soft skills essential to building a long and successful career after sports.
I started playing baseball competitively when I was seven years old and was fortunate enough to play professionally for four years. During my career, I picked up on certain characteristics of my teammates.
Performance under pressure, teamwork, self-motivation, perseverance, and how coachable an individual is are all skills professional athletes develop that are certain to help the transition into the work force feel less overwhelming.
1.) Performance Under Pressure
Getting work done under strict time constraints, delivering the perfect presentation, or successfully handling an angry customer, are all situations where if handled poorly, may result in losses for you or your company, or even worse, your job. Athletes face the same consequences as well. In four years, I played with 19 different second basemen. The window of opportunity is extremely short for a lot of athletes, and if they don’t perform up to expectations their careers can be short lived. In some cases, players have only a few days to prove themselves. In baseball, for example, there are a relatively high number of players coming and going compared to other sports with the way the minor league system is set up. There are always people waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of your mistakes.
Perhaps the most obvious transferable skill is teamwork. It goes without saying that the ability to work well with others and understand them is one of the most important skills to have at your disposal. But what may not be entirely clear is how teamwork in a sports setting is exactly the same as the teamwork that takes place in a business setting. At its core, teamwork can be described as a combination of communication, leadership, diversity, tolerance, support, and goal setting. Having played on multiple teams with people from all over the world, finding common ground and creating working relationships with teammates who have entirely different personalities than yourself is a crucial part of any successful team. The best teams I have been on (championship winning teams) were not always the most skilled, but the most cohesive. This is the case because teams that get along are often able to have more productive conversations and are more open to constructive criticism, which is essential to improving as a team.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” Professional athletes are experts in self-motivation. The overwhelming majority of people pursuing a career in sports find themselves struggling in one way or another, yet they continue to pursue their dreams. Whether its lack of money, resources, or support, aspiring professional athletes often find themselves fighting an uphill mental battle.
According to research conducted by the NCAA in 2019, 9.8% of baseball players, 1.2% of men’s basketball players, 0.9% of women’s basketball players, 1.6% of football players, and 6.9% of men’s hockey players will play professionally. With just a quick glance, it’s clear the odds are stacked against anybody trying to make a living playing sports. But these statistics only speak volumes about the kind of person it takes to challenge the overwhelming odds in order to accomplish something incredible.
Injuries happen, jobs don’t work out, you lose your starting position on a team, or someone else gets the promotion. All these experiences must be overcome in order to continue moving your career in the right direction. Overcoming an injury is the most common instance that tests a professional athlete’s perseverance. Injuries are a worst nightmare scenario for many career athletes. Some injuries are career ending. Some are recoverable. But the rehab and recovery process are long and there is no guarantee of returning to proper form. Other injuries are merely minor injuries that allow someone else to come off the bench in your place for a few games. If you play long enough, the chances of one of these scenarios happening is almost a certainty. And when one of these scenarios does happen, you must be ready to work harder than ever before.
There is a famous story that rewrote the baseball history books involving Lou Gehrig and a teammate of his named Wally Pipp. As the story goes, Wally showed up to a game one day with a headache and asked to take the day off. The manager granted his wish and the rest is history. Lou Gehrig got the start in his place and went onto become one of the greatest baseball players ever and a household name. While this is an extreme case, it goes to show that a little bit of perseverance can have a big impact on your career.
The ability to listen, learn, and accept constructive criticism is one of the best skills to have when making a career change. Being coachable is more than just completing a task your superior tells you to do, but rather completing that task and then opening yourself up to constructive criticism with the intent to implement the feedback into future efforts. At every level of athletics, you are learning and applying new skills. It is common for coaches to reward players who perform well in practice and show signs of improvement. This pattern of behavior from coaches is recognized by many professional athletes. Their ability to understand the importance of accepting constructive criticism is yet another reason why professional athletes are not behind the eight ball, but rather, just as equipped in the skills department as someone who has been working for years in business world.