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  • Troy Flanagan

How to last a while in elite sport

Updated: May 11, 2022

I started my first job in elite sport in 1992 at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS) in Melbourne, Australia. It is hard to believe that I have been working in sport science and high performance for 30 years. It doesn’t feel like it’s been that long! I will always credit Peter Spence and Frank Pyke for giving me my first start in sport. Peter, Frank and many other people taught me a lot along the way.

The one thing that has stood out to me over the years is that people in the sporting industry often don't think big enough. They also burn out. The thing that limits or stops the careers of people working in elite sport, therefore, is usually themselves. If you are starting out in a career in elite sport and you want to make your career last, here are some things that might help with your longevity and scope of your career:

1. It’s not about you.

I never felt genuinely fulfilled in my career until I stopped worrying about my own achievements and started focusing on how I could help others achieve their goals. The truth is, helping others has given me the energy I have needed at times when I have been exhausted from the unrelenting schedule of professional sport. It has been great to see the people around me get better and go on to achieve bigger and better things. I have also enjoyed watching those people give back and show strong leadership to everyone around them. We are in the service industry, not the self-service industry. Focus on others.

2. Ignore the self-talk

I have spoken with a lot of young professionals who think that they are not good enough to break into the industry or not good enough to go to another team and lead a group. It’s this blind spot and negative self-talk that limits their career. You can achieve any result in your career if you sit down, plan it out and ask for help. Negative self-talk is a challenge for any professional, regardless of previous achievements. We all have it to some degree. Those that can ignore the voice in their head and get on with it are the ones who make it. People need to be more unstoppable.

3. The most important project you can work on is…

How much time do you take each week to sit and review your own professional development, career milestones and your action plans for self-development? Most of us would be lucky to think about it seriously more than a few times per year. I have seen some of my staff members’ careers really accelerate when they structure in time each week to work on themselves. They ask for help on gaps in their skill sets. They develop clear goals with timelines and usually achieve better results sooner than they expected. Spend 30 minutes each week reviewing skills and knowledge that you need and put actions into your weekly calendar so that you achieve these. It all adds up over time. That’s one way the really good people in our industry have worked to rise to the top.

4. Get things done on time

The best people I have worked with usually delivered what they promised. People who are really good are organized, work hard and communicate regularly on their progress of their tasks. If you just get things done, you’re 90% there! Not everything has to be done perfectly, but you have to work efficiently and get things done. We all procrastinate and get in overwhelm, particularly when we work in the fast paced environment of professional sport. Some days it’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant. If you plan out your working day and follow it, you will get things get done. I don’t always do this well, but every time that I feel like I am working well with my calendar, scheduling and task management, I am reminded that there’s plenty of time during the day to get more things done.

5. Look for ways to keep having fun

Working in elite sport is unrelenting. The hours are excessive. It seems glamorous from the outside, but it’s very hard work and quite often anything but glamorous. In professional sport, there is no such thing as a weekend. It is often 7 days per week for a number of weeks or months before you get a day off. So after a while the novelty can wear off and the job can feel like a grind. It can take a toll on your life balance, health, family and personal life. So, how do you avoid this feeling of overwhelm and maintain your energy and enthusiasm? Satisfaction and enjoyment in life, particularly in the workplace, often comes from when we are learning and have the feeling of getting better. When I notice a staff member is tired and flat, I meet with them, figure out a development plan and schedule regular meetings to track their progress and help them problem solve. This process of learning new skills and getting better is always energizing and keeps them engaged in a demanding work environment.

If you give back, ignore your inner voice, work your plan, keep getting better and have fun, you will have a long and rewarding career in elite sport.

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