Every year, there is a new batch of players facing the prospect of being given a professional contract or being released from the club. Whilst this might be the norm for a lot of sports, it’s always worth remembering that even if the club or the coaches have been through this process before, it's usually the first and last time a player will face this situation. How they go on to deal with this is really important.
Research suggests that this period can be very stressful for athletes and, as sport psychologists, we are often asked to help guide athletes through this process. However, some athletes receive little to no support, or only receive the support they need once a decision has been made. Here at InnerDrive HQ we though we’d give you some ways that you can help to prepare athletes. So, what can you do to help?
What if planning is a great way to help athletes in any situation that they might have fears about. It encourages them to think about what is worrying them, and then to plan for the situation if it was to happen. We like using this with our athletes because it helps them to prepare and really think about how they can help themselves. It is also a good way to acknowledge the situation they are in, rather than pretend it’s not happening.
To put this technique into practice, you should help your athlete write down potential situations that might happen (i.e. ‘I will get my pro’, ‘I’ll be released’ or ‘I might get a 3rd year scholar’). Secondly, help athletes to write down what worries they have about these situations and then how these situations would make them feel. Last of all, help your athlete to create an ‘If Then’ plan. This is where the athlete will plan for what to do in each situation if it were to happen.
This can help players feel a lot more prepared in each eventuality but is also a nice way to help them become more aware of the situation they are in.
Dear future self
Another nice strategy that we like to use with both younger and older athletes in order to help them consider the challenges ahead and plan for them, is to ask them to write a letter of advice to their future selves. Again, we like this as it helps them to prepare and acknowledge their situation. Generally, we ask athletes to write two letters (i.e., if I get my pro, if I don’t get my pro). Key things athletes should include are:
- Congratulate or commiserate themselves
- ‘You should be proud of yourself’- regardless of the result
- Give themselves advice
- How can they bounce back?
- Who is there to help?
When done properly, this can be a nice initial resource for a player to go to that gives them a source of comfort and guidance or can help the athlete to stay humble.
Who’s in your team?
Without the right team around them, athletes can become isolated very quickly when dealing with a setback. On the other hand, having the wrong people around you if things go well can be equally as damaging. Therefore, either way, being surrounded by the right people helps athletes to never get too high nor get too low. Importantly, when people have good teams around them, they can better deal with stressful situations, develop their resilience and can gain valuable social support and advice. Mapping out who is in your team and why before this big decision, is key to having the right team at the right time. To find out how to build a good team around you check out our guide here.
The way that athletes perceive challenges and setbacks will influence how they deal with them. Equally, the way that they perceive success will influence how they move on and continue to develop after succeeding. This means that working on a player’s mindset throughout their development will help to prepare them for this moment. Specifically, helping athletes develop a growth mindset will increase their persistence and courage, will help them deal better with transitions and will lead to them attributing success to hard work. All of these are important factors during this stage of their development. Those with a growth mindset will also understand that learning and development isn’t always linear and will be more equipped to focus on the bigger picture.
Clarity is key
Be honest with athletes about how difficult becoming a professional athlete is. Of course, the caveat here though is that if you hammer this point too hard, it can serve as a source of demotivation. Also, youth players spend a lot of time trying to read people’s emotions and as such, can be very perceptive. This means that if towards the end of their scholarship, the focus shifts solely onto how difficult getting a contract is, they might perceive this as an early indication that they haven’t got one. So, this message should be embedded throughout their time at an academy - not just in the final few weeks.
Good questions to ask themselves
As well as these points, we think there are some really useful questions you can ask athletes to consider too:
"What have I learnt?"
Another great way to help athletes prepare is by getting them to consider what they have learnt already and how this might help them in their current situation. This is because no one knows them better than themselves. If we can help players to find the answers themselves, this can feel really empowering and help them feel more in control of their own emotions.
"What am I good at?"
Asking themselves this question helps athletes to think about what skills they have and what their strengths are. This will be very important to help athletes progress into a professional environment and feel as though they belong there. It also serves as motivational tool and as a source of optimism for those players who have been released.
"What do you enjoy doing?"
This question helps players to think about what else they could spend their time doing. This is particularly helpful for athletes who are starting to worry, or for those that might not play as much sport anymore because of deselection. This can serve as a great starting point to plan for their future too!
"Keep calm and carry on"
Aside from the advice above, players should understand that if they are released it is by no means the end of the road. Often, it’s just a reflection of one person’s opinion and can be an opportunity to find playing time elsewhere. On the other hand, if players do get a contract, then this is definitely something to be excited about. However, it doesn’t mean the hard work has stopped; getting a 1st year professional contract is one thing but keeping it can be even harder!