Former Players

We all know the myths about positive side of pro sports. Sure for the top 1% of professional athletes like Derrick Rose, Jay Cutler, Paul Konerko, and Jonathan Toews (yes I am a proud Chicagoan) fame and fortune are among the greatest benefits to be reaped. For the thousands of, what I like to call grunts (I myself being one for ten years), role players and bench warmers, there are still incredible benefits to be reaped that are attached to achieving what only 1/10 of 1% of those seeking a life in professional athletics (in professional football) can achieve. But… (you knew that was coming) there is a price to pay for everything. There is a very real problem these athletes are dealing with while playing professional sports. The problem is falling behind their peers in the world outside the bubble of professional sports. Financial and athletic success on the field can actually hurt you off the field if you are not working to develop your skills and knowledge.

In an article in US News & World Report written by Alexis Grant titled “Take Charge of Your Professional Development” she writes “If you don’t [focus on professional development], you won’t be marketable in your field in five years” I personally have heard as few as three years behind your peers, with no real work experience, can be disastrous to where you start your potential career track. Professional athletes are so focused on their current careers they don’t see that any of the skills they obtained in college pertaining to the business world are eroding exponentially every year. The longer the career the worse off the athlete may be, depending on what field they wish to enter, once their playing careers are over. Layer on top of this is the fact that most athletic careers end prematurely (especially in the mind of the player) and you have a recipe for disaster. According to Whitney Johnson in her HBR article on the S-curve as it pertains to building new knowledge “As we approach mastery, our learning rate decelerates, and while the ability to do something automatically implies competence, it also means our brains are now producing less of the feel-good neurotransmitters — the thrill ride is over.” and “As our learning crests, should we fail to jump to new curves, we may actually precipitate our own decline. That doesn’t necessarily mean a financial downfall, but our emotional and social well-being will take a hit.” Once an athlete reaches the point where they can no longer learn anything from the sport, and are effectively on “cruise control”, some believe their mental development can actually start to decline. There lies the double-edged sword, the longer the career, the steeper the life learning curve becomes.

The NFL Players Association, in the last CBA fight with the NFL, focused on increasing the length of the time in the off season a player has to himself, to develop his skills off the field so that this learning curve at least flattens and players are better armed, once their career ends, to enter the workforce. We will see if the players take that opportunity for professional and personal growth by engaging in the programs offered by the NFLPA and its partners like Athlife. The NFLPA also created the Trust to assist former players in climbing that life learning curve as quickly as they can with proper guidance and a strong game plan.

I have taken some of the helpful tips offered in the Take Charge of Your Professional Development article and I have infused my own personal take:

1. Take a class (finish your degree or get a higher level degree/certification). Just because you're no longer in school doesn't mean the classroom is off-limits. Plenty of universities offer classes for adults, often in the evening so you can attend around your job schedule. Online classes are another convenient option. Take a class on a topic that's relevant for your job, or learn about something that's totally unrelated for a change of pace. Either way, you're growing, which is the over-arching goal.

2. Teach yourself a skill. You don't always need structure or a class to learn something new. Pinpoint skills that are desirable in your line of work, and start practicing. Website-building or social-media skills are a perfect example, and they're desirable across the board. Jump into a project, and learn the ropes as you go.

3. Internships. According to Melissa Benca director of career services at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City "Graduating students with paid or unpaid internships on their résumé have a much better chance at landing a full-time position upon graduation. Students are doing internships as undergraduates, and it is now not unusual for recent grads to take an unpaid internship with hopes of turning it into a permanent position or at least making some contacts and building their résumé. " The state of the economy also is changing the nature of work given to interns. "In this economic downturn, employers are relying increasingly on interns to shore up areas where full-time hiring has been cut," Benca notes. Athletes should take the time on the off season to try the different companies which offer opportunities in careers they might desire. That is how I got my start, participating in an internship program, and it ended with me becoming a full agent with Northwestern Mutual while I was still an active player with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

4. Master an online tool. Even those of us who organize our lives via digital tools don't always make the most of them. The Web is full of free video tutorials on how to use networks like LinkedIn and Google+, as well as tips on organizing your Gmail life. Think about how you can increase your efficiency, and scour the Internet for resources to help you accomplish that.

5. Seek out people who are on the career path you aspire to. Ask them how they got to where they are. With a little effort on social media, Rueff says, you can easily find out who holds a certain position—or who used to hold it—and reach out to them. Especially if you stroke their ego a bit, people are often happy to talk about the path they took in their career, as well as what worked and what didn't. Learn from their successes and mistakes. Many former players have gone on to successful careers and they are wonderful sounding boards for current athletes to help them vet out ideas about career paths.

6. Read. Devour books and articles and blogs within your niche, but also pick reads that are outside of your normal professional box, Rueff says. "Read things that are outside of your own industry and experience, and then stop and think about, how can I relate that and apply it to my business?" he says.

7. Time Management. It always amazes me that some athletes say they don’t have time to dedicate to personal and professional development. Many times this is fostered by the work environment they are in, with the coaches or management dismissing anything that would take an athlete away from focusing on their playing career. What the athlete forgets is that they have been able to, for three to four years (at least in football), balance work and school and put in 12 to 15 hour per day work weeks just to stay eligible to play. If you don't believe me see the recent NLRB decision on Northwestern football players being seen as employees. To keep the life learning curve flat the time required will not be as daunting that was. Keeping those good time management habits once they enter the professional athletic ranks is the key to success in their post career journey.

While the financial gains in professional athletics can be substantial for some, one should remember, money cannot buy time, experience or education, but if you are at the bottom of the life learning curve looking up… it sure can buy mistakes.


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn here:  

Nolan is currently the Senior Director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Former Player Services. Prior to joining the staff at the NFLPA, Nolan spent ten years as a business owner and a financial services industry executive. Nolan had a ten year playing career in the National Football League, playing for the LA/Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington.