Is there life after a professional sports career?

Is there life after a professional sports career?

In most professional athletes’ careers there comes a point in time when they need to made a decision to hang up their boots and take that quantum leap from the locker room to the boardroom. This can be more daunting than it sounds.

The South African Sports Commission and Olympic Committee (SASCOC) has identified pivotal challenges South African sportsmen and sportswomen face. SASCOC recently held a Career Day and invited the RMB National Squad to represent South African rowing at the event.

The focus of this workshop was on how athletes can use their sport successes to their advantage when the time comes to transition from a full-time athlete to a full-time career outside of sport.

Discussion topics included expectations when entering the job market and the importance – as well as the art – of effective networking.

Delegates also received a host of practical advice, such as how to compile a CV that best communicates how the athlete’s individual or team successes and everyday training disciplines can be recognised as beneficial to the organisation or company they are applying to work for.

“The secret of change is to focus all your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” – Socrates

One professional athlete who has successfully made the transition to the corporate world is South African Olympic medallist Shaun Keeling. Shaun retired from rowing and entered the business world after bringing home a silver medal at the 2016 London Olympics. By the time he retired from rowing he had participated in 13 World Cups, nine World Championships and two Olympics (2008 and 2016).

“The decision to retire was a difficult one,” he says. “I loved every part of rowing.”

Shaun was injured several times during his years in the boat. Four of these injuries resulted in surgery.

“This made training difficult and it was hurting my body,” he recalls. “I want to live a long healthy life and be able to play with my kids some day.”

There was also the issue of money.

“As a professional rower I never made enough money to move on with my life. The RMB National Squad has amazing support from SASCOC and Team Power House Trust, which allowed me to live and row. But it was never enough to save anything to build a future. I was just living in the here and now, making it month to month.

“Finance was a serious stress and in the period from 2013-2016 it was my biggest problem. I simply could not afford to continue.”

Naturally, Shaun knew at some stage that he would need to call it a day.

“I understood at some stage that I would not be able to carry on forever – although I would have loved to! I started studying while I was rowing. I was lucky to get support from my dad as well as guidance to help me understand the importance of studying.”

Shaun racked up three qualifications over the years, a BCom in marketing management, BCom (Hons) in business management and a post-grad diploma in integrated reporting.

“If I could do it again, I would put more effort into my studies and try to come away with a Masters or a Doctorate. Degrees or skills don’t necessarily get you jobs, but they certainly help. They also keep your mind active and give you a different perspective on life, which is very important.”

Last year, CN&CO the PR and brand partner for RMB National Rowing Squad, reached out to one of its business partners, Easy Equities, to hire Shaun on a full-time basis.

“I really believe that the twin characteristics of teamwork and perseverance – which are key disciplines in rowing – helped me to secure the job,” he says. “I went from wearing a tri-suit and sitting on a boat in the middle of a dam every morning, to putting on smart clothes and talking to people every day. But I believe people are the same in most places and I believe that it’s not what you look like but your actions that define you. I have thus seen that what I learnt during my rowing career can assist me in any situation and any environment.

“In rowing you strive to be the best and nothing less is good enough. You push your body to the absolute limits and always look for more. But it is also a sport that people fall in love with, whether they row at a club level or at the Olympics.

“At EasyEquities I love the banter and teamwork I experienced with my rowing mates also. Our mantra is to democratise investing for all. That Is the part I love about it. It’s not an elitist brand, but one that helps everyone save and manage their money through investing. I believe I am a good team player and I am willing to learn from my days in the boat. We have an amazing marketing team that works together and always throws out the occasional chirp.

“From the stress of semi-finals at World Champs or the Olympics, there is no work environment that can ever get that stressful, just obstacles that need to be overcome.”

One of the areas Shaun says he has had to work hard on is networking.

“I would not have called myself a networker before I started my career at Easy Equites, although I did mingle and made friends where I could. Now that I see the benefit of networking, it has become part of my life. I have learnt a lot from the people I work with and continue learning at every opportunity.”

Shaun says the best advice for athletes in preparing for “life after sport” is to plan ahead.

“There will come a time when you can’t carry on living the dream. Make sure you prepare for this moment.

“For me it was important to take a big step away from rowing. I could not be half in and half out. I had lived and breathed rowing for 17 years and I sadly had to get out completely. Now I feel I can slowly go back and not feel upset or depressed about not doing it every day at the same level I did.

“I still miss it, as it is now part of my DNA, but I occupy my time with other pursuits like Ironman and Comrades to keep my body strong and my mind active hunting the next challenge. I also spend a lot more time with my close mates, catching up on all the time I missed during my rowing years.

“The best advice I can give to athletes who are about to retire is to believe in yourself and relish the changes that are happening around you. You will miss the sport, but enjoy the challenges that other parts of life have to offer.

“There is a wide world out there with many challenges and opportunities that you didn’t even know about while you were chasing your dream. But while you’re embracing these challenges and opportunities, remember to keep active! It is the only way to stay sane.”


Written by CN&CO guest author Birgitta Wasserfall