I. Athletes' issues in Olympic and Paralympic Games

Dual career: Balancing success in sport and life


Few Olympic and Paralympic athletes are paid sufficiently and often face the challenge of combining their sport with an educational or vocational career. This is referred to as 'dual career’. Dual career in sport encapsulates the requirement for “athletes to successfully initiate, develop and finalise an elite sporting career as part of a lifelong career, in combination with the pursuit of education and/or work" (European Union, 2012, p. 6). In the last decade, there has been an exponential increase of collaborative dual career research, which has coincided with the emergence of policy, strategy and calls for legislative change at the national and international level, such as the United Kingdom’s Duty of Care in Sport Review (Grey-Thompson, 2017) and the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes’Commission ‘All in' Strategy (IOC, 2020).

In consideration of the issues athletes face in their pursuit of competing at the Olympic or Paralympic Games (and at elite sport more broadly), it is essential to understand the principles underlying a dual career. The aims of this chapter are to familiarise the reader with the concept of dual career and the benefits of this approach to nurturing an athlete’s career development. Further, this chapter will review existing dual career programmes that aim to support an athlete in their ability to effectively balance their sporting, and educational and/or vocational goals.

What is a dual career?

An athlete's career development is multifaceted, non-linear and dynamic, which includes the social environment, personal factors and sport commitments (Debois et al., 2012; Durand-Bush and Salmela, 2002; MacNamara, Button and Collins, 2010). Acosta et al. (2007) propose a five-stage model to an athletes'sports career: (1) starting of the sport career; (2) sport development; (3) specialisation in sports; (4) career fall; and (5) adaptation to a new life. Athletes typically experience anticipated or ‘normative’ transitions (e.g. retirement, junior to senior progression) and unanticipated or ‘non-normative’ transitions (e.g. serious injury, deselection, loss of funding) as they progress through each stage. This can often result in athletes having to choose between education and/or work and their sport.

There is now consensus that transitions in the career development of talented and elite athletes should not be considered in isolation but rather as a holistic approach incorporating the athletic, psychological, psychosocial, academic/vocational and financial domains (Wylleman, Reints and De Knop, 2013). In short, an athlete will have their own pathway to managing their own career (Li and Sum, 2017). Building on this perceptive, Wylleman and Lavallee (2004) introduced the model of transitions faced by athletes. This model combines career development (e.g. transition into post-athletic career) with a holistic perspective (e.g. an athlete’s multi-level development), which reflects domain-specific normative transitions in the factors that could influence athletes’psychological, psychosocial and academic/vocational development. In short, this model encourages the consideration and interaction of sport, studies and private life during an athletes’ development throughout the lifespan.

To support application of the model, Stambulova et al. (2015) reported the results from a mixed-method study of Swedish student-athletes (N = 10) during their adaption to elite-sport schools. The authors reported that student-athletes would coordinate different layers of their development (e.g. athletic, psychological, educational) to obtain an optimal balance between sport, studies and private life. Importantly, the authors highlighted the demanding lifestyle student-athletes face and that as the year progressed, students’ perceptions of their ability to cope with these demands increased. Similarly, in a longitudinal study of personal characteristics of German student-athletes (N = 125), Baron-Thiene and Alfermann (2015) reported that student-athletes were more likely to drop out of sport due to higher physical complaints and lower win motivation and self-optimisation. The authors suggested that to prevent such drop-outs, student-athletes need psychological support to help manage their careers, particularly during key transition periods (e.g. school to Higher Education). Athletes report an appreciation for the support received in the ‘personal’ domain and being surrounded by a caring agenda (Devaney et al., 2018), with dual career trained support staff including Personal Excellence Advisors and Performance Lifestyle Practitioners also contributing to valuable dual career support services. Further research into applied practice and experiences of such roles in relation to supporting a dual career is required. In a systematic review of qualitative research on dual career athletes, Li and Sum (2017) identified that individual (e.g. psychological condition), interpersonal (e.g. coping strategy) and external factors (e.g. financial support) influence a dual career athlete’s development. The authors concluded that these factors all interplay and emphasised the importance of both the individual and the environment in facilitating the development of a dual career athlete.

While the holistic model can provide an understanding of a dual career athlete’s development, there is still a lack of research that examines the whole environment. Future research is needed that considers the interaction and relationship of factors (e.g. personal, environmental, psychosocial) influencing an athletes' career development in both sport and elsewhere.

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