If you were among the millions of viewers that tuned in to the recent Olympic Trials, then you witnessed the undeniable changing of the guard happening in the sport of track & field. The youth of the sport blazed onto the scene, kicking butt and taking names, while many of their older counterparts were left to plan for the next phase in their careers.
Having recently hung up my spikes after 10 years as a professional athlete, I’m excited about what the future holds for the sport. But as a person with first-hand knowledge of the steep learning curve required to achieve success on the national stage, I want to lend a hand to help prepare the newbies for the journey that lies ahead.
Here are a few suggestions for the next generation of professional track and field athletes:
1. Make Education a Priority
Turning pro is a huge accomplishment, one deserving of all the recognition you have received. That said, as you prepare for the next phase of your life, be careful not to get too caught up in the fanfare of becoming a professional athlete and neglect the pursuit of higher education.
As professional athletes, education is especially important because our careers come to an end a lot earlier than most traditional career paths. Without an educational background to fall back on, many athletes find themselves with limited options once they are done competing.
For that reason, I recommend going to school immediately.
In most cases, you’re already used to balancing your training schedule and school work, so there’s no reason to put your education on hold because you can do both. In fact, Allyson Felix continued her collegiate pursuits while simultaneously becoming the most decorated woman in the sport.
However, if you and your team have decided to temporarily forgo college and transition into a professional career, make sure you have a plan for how you will complete your education down the line.
On average, the cost of attending college is between $9,000 and $32,000 per year. Oftentimes, your agent will be able to negotiate college expenses with your sponsor and have some (if not all) of your costs covered. However, if you have already signed and didn’t include the cost of education in your contract, it’s possible that your school has a lifetime scholarship which allows pro athletes to go back to school to finish their degree.
2. Create Structure
Once you become a professional athlete, you must create a structure that is conducive to your growth on the track, as well as in life. Gone are the days that your coach tracks you down and makes life miserable if you miss a day of practice. Now, the coach works for you and it’s unlikely they will deduct your missed days from their invoice.
And while for many of you, going to practice won’t be the issue — you must remain mindful of the things you do outside of practice that could potentially interfere with your results. For example: waking up, going to practice and then going home to play video games probably isn’t the best way to reach your full potential.
Referring back to the first tip, if you still have education to complete, enrolling in courses is the best way to create structure and ensure that your hard work doesn’t end on the track. If you are done with school, find another skill you can work on and pursue that in your freetime.
Consider gaining valuable work experience through internships and entry level positions. These opportunities allow you to shape skills that will help you after your athletic career has ended.
3. Think of Yourself as a Business
Track is no longer just a sport you participate in, it is your business. Now is the time for you to put on your ‘business hat’ and start viewing yourself as the CEO of “Insert Name Here” enterprise. This means being responsible for everything from hiring and firing, to creating an image that the rest of the world will engage with.
As a business owner, it’s imperative that you stay up-to-date with the current events of the industry. You should also be knowledgeable of the sports’ history, aware of the rules and regulations, and know who to contact if you run into a problem or have questions (ex: USATF, AAC, USOC ombudsman, USADA and WADA).
Finally, read EVERYTHING. As with most things, the devil is in the details, so be sure to thoroughly read everything from contracts to e-mails — they can all contain valuable information.
4. Get the right team
As CEO, you are also responsible for surrounding yourself with people who give you the best chance to succeed. This means you may look to hire an Event Coach, Strength Coach, Nutritionist, Agent, PR Manager, Physiotherapist, the list can go on and on.
And while adding all of these individuals to your team may seem like a high priority on the surface, when you begin adding up the costs, it’s easy to minimize their value because you’ve been used to getting free access to those resources for years. As a cost-cutting measure, you may try handling some of these things yourself.
Be careful of wearing too many hats. Sure, you could probably handle some tasks in the short-term, but you’re more prone to burnout by trying to manage everything on your own. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with investing in yourself, especially if it gets you closer to goals. It’s important to find a balance that works for you.
Family often wants to help, and though they may mean well, you must determine if they are truly qualified to perform the required tasks. Everyone is not equipped to help you and unfortunately, some people close to you may only be out to personally benefit from your success.
Remember, your career will be shortened by the the “turn-up squad” or leeches looking to hang with the cool kids while you’re stuck picking up the tab.
5. Take Advantage of the Opportunity to See the World
Maybe you’ve traveled outside of the country once or twice in your life, but what you’ve just signed up for is completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced. As a newly-minted professional, you can expect to spend months on end in foreign countries with cultural norms much different than what you’re used to.
There will be little hand holding. You will experience unusual foods, weird smells, and different hours of operation in many of the places you visit. It’s not uncommon to find yourself hungry at midnight, only to realize that the entire city is asleep when your internal clock is wide awake — and starving. In some countries, the only places you’ll visit are the airport, hotel, and track.
But don’t be discouraged by the challenges because you will find that the good far outweighs the bad.
Just think about it, people spend a fortune to travel outside of the country just once. You have the benefit of traveling the world on someone else’s dime! That’s more than enough reason to take every opportunity available to see what this great big world has to offer.
Think of it as the privilege of a real live social studies class — just a lot more exciting.
6. Create a Game Plan for your Finances NOW!
It’s likely that the first professional contract you sign will be worth more money than you’ve ever made before. And although you don’t have plans to go out and buy a really extravagant item with your first check, that doesn’t mean you have all the tools to necessary to maximize the benefits of your new income.
This means you should start preparing now to find a qualified, unbiased person to help create a plan for your financial future. The average career in this sport is three-years. If you plan like you will only be competing for three-years and you get to do it for thirteen, great! On the other hand, you don’t want to spend like you’re guaranteed a double-digit career in the sport, only to have it cut short and find your finances in disarray.
Here are a few resources you can use to begin getting your finances in order: Myself, of course, at worth-winning.com. In addition, you can check out xyplanningnetwork.com/consumer/find-advisor/ or http://findanadvisor.napfa.org/Home.aspx to find other fee-only financial planners that can help you navigate your finances and plan for the future.