Using the Past to Advance Your Future
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For athletes at all levels, ribbons, medals, and trophies are the ultimate symbol of personal victory. This “stuff” collected over the years demonstrates commitment, effort, proficiency, skill, and ultimately both a public and personal definition of success.

But what does all this “stuff” mean, post-sport? Where does it live now? In a box, a drawer, or in plain sight for you and others to see? Do these symbols elicit positive memories that give you a boost today, or do they create negative reminders of how far away you are from that feeling of success, physical prowess, or hero-like status?

Like most athletes, I personally have experienced both of these perspectives.

Five years after exiting from high-performance sport, I remember sitting on the stairs of our house sobbing, wondering how I got to where I was. I was at a place in that messy middle where I missed the passion of my past pursuits, and did not yet understand or believe in the possibilities of my future career.

Looking at the Olympic ring on my finger, the voice inside my head shouted out “loser!” While proud of my athletic accomplishments, at that moment I questioned all of my abilities: my education, my purpose, and even my next steps. For me (and probably many athletes like me) everything was juxtaposed against having experienced what success was and that feeling of being deeply committed to that success.

Fast forward to early 2014, when I started interviewing individuals for the research that led to my new book, Forward. That negative inner voice was rearing its ugly head again. Thoughts swirled around if I would even find 100 people who had successful and meaningful pursuits, post-sport. And even if I could identify them, would they be willing to talk to me? I looked at that ring on my pinky finger and said to myself, “Melinda, you have accomplished a lot of goals in your life. This new goal is important to you. Have the courage to believe you will accomplish this one.” Many times, as I picked up the phone to interview a person, I twirled that ring as my symbol of belief.

With time, I now have a deeper awareness around how belief in myself in the here and now can be framed around how I feel about my past successes. I have developed 3 simple questions to check in on my thoughts as I advance my future.

1. Am I using my past to build my current belief, or am I using it to destroy my current belief?

2. What is one scenario from my past (that is relatable to my current experience) that will give me courage to advance my future?

3. How can I remind myself of that scenario in those inevitable moments of doubt?

I hope these sorts of questions encourage you to think about what might work to advance your future.


Stronger, Faster, Better …
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Athletes grow up with these words. While they may not always be spoken, they are integral parts of daily training in all competitive arenas. At the heart of competition someone WINS, which fundamentally means some other person or some other team LOSES. Young athletes understand this. To excel through a sports system, the athlete needs to be in the WIN column.

As a young athlete, this comparative analysis shapes their perspective. Comparative analysis occurs within all of us at all stages of our lives, however, in sports it happens every day – at every practice and every competition. Comparative analysis arises from a coach challenging the athlete, or a parent comparing the child to someone else. It is shouted from the bleachers, and happens during car pools. It is there between teammates on and off the field, and is it used to analyze past feats, for current or future performances. And it ultimately defines certain athletes who are promoted and others are left behind. It is incredibly powerful, but not always positive.

Comparative analysis can embody how athletes view the world and how they see themselves in that world. It is a part of how they judge themselves. It can boost or destroy self-worth. It is a foundation for athletic identity. One might even argue that some athletes feel it is necessary to be the best.

But what are the implications of this for the post-sport athlete?

When athletes exit their athletic arena, what will they compare themselves to?

Post-sport, those on-field demonstrations of athletic ability become irrelevant. But the athlete has been conditioned to habitually look for comparisons to demonstrate self-worth and identity. For the post-sport athlete, it is still a race.

The effect of this will vary from athlete to athlete. An awareness of these implications can help transitioning athletes. I believe this new time of post-sport pursuits is not a time for comparison, but instead a time for discovery and self-compassion.

Curiosity and discovery help develop a new sense of self, unearthing new interests and the start of a new a journey toward new expertise.

I encourage post-sport athletes to interrupt their well-worn athletic habits of comparative analysis that may create negative thoughts or feelings, and that no longer serve their new circumstances. They can ask themselves:

1. Does comparing myself to anyone else right now serve my future self?

2. Is my next pursuit a competition, or can I allow myself time to discover new things about myself?

3. What actions and thoughts do I need, to ensure I am being compassionate in this transition from being a high-performance athlete to my new post-sport life?

Once An Athlete, Always An Athlete Mindset.

When athletes hang up their skates, retire their helmet, or cross the finish line for the final time, the mental mindset that was developed over their time in sport still lives on.

Post-sport athletes can make use of this mindset to move away from the intensity of daily physical feats, and toward their next set of adventures and challenges. The strengths of this mindset can help athletes get hired, and promoted, post-sport.

To succeed, athletes developed basic skills through dedication, hard work, the ability to process feedback, and being open to learning. They learn to accept that frustration, disappointment and failure are parts of a process of success. Ultimately, they know that they are 100 percent responsible for their actions and results.

This athlete mindset cannot be taught – it must be experienced over and over again, so that it becomes a fundamental way to operate and view the next set of hurdles. It is a part of the athlete, an extension of the self.

In sport, when faced with a hurdle that needed to be conquered, the athlete understood that a coach, teammate, trainer, psychologist, or medical specialist were there to support them through the process. Countless times over their athletic career, they have relied on the people who surrounded them, and the athlete mindset developed through these experiences.

Post-sport, the individual must continue to nourish this mindset, but for new purposes. There will be times when they experience rejection, failure, questioning moments, and feelings of doubt, insecurity or anxiety. This is when they need to put trust in their fundamentals.

I recommend three strategies for the post-sport athlete.

1. Place in your wallet 4 to 5 words or phrases that represent your definition of mindset. In my wallet the words are “hard work,” “accepting feedback,” “be open to learning,” “change what is not working” and “success is a process.” In moments of doubt, remind yourself of these words.

2. Create a new support team that will be honest and direct with you (just like your old support team was). This new team’s purpose is to support your forward process (not revel in your past successes).

3. Be kind to your mindset. You are in a new arena, where you are learning new skills, and meeting new people. Your mindset is still adjusting from the old arena where you understood the required skills, knew most of the players, and were regarded as an expert.

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Taking the NEXT Step

Millions of fans tune in to cheer on their favorite college football teams during December and early January, culminating in the College Football Playoff National Championship. These games are symbols of a successful season – defined not from the hope at the beginning of a season, but more from the reality at the end of the schedule.

For those that graduate or are finishing their eligibility, this will be their last game. The hope of a college football career now moves to the reality of what is NEXT. For 2% of players, NEXT may be the NFL, where hope will continue to germinate the mindset of athletic success and potential riches. For the other 98%, there is the harsh reality that this part of their life is ending.

Although there will be many celebratory moments of past accomplishments over the coming weeks, athletes need to acknowledge that looking back at what was is not going to help them move forward.

While you are still at school, I recommend reaching out to the athletic department support systems to discuss your current reality and set some broad-based goals for what you may want from the next part of your life.

This recommendation applies to all student-athletes – you have a right to get support.

In my coaching practice, I use 5 Questions to get the athlete thinking forward.

1. What is my definition of a WIN from today onward?

2. What qualities have I learned through sport that I can take forward in the next part of my life?

3. How do these qualities show up daily, now that sport is over?

4. In 20 years, what type of lifestyle do I imagine?

5. Does my degree support me working toward that lifestyle, or do I need further skills and qualifications?

If you do not have the support of an athletic department, take a few minutes, or longer, to answer these questions on your own.

If you are interested in diving deeper into this topic, sign up to learn more about the spring offering of my online course on Navigating Life After Sports.