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What Can High-Performance Sports Teach Us About Career Curiosity?

In 2010, the average NFL player was earning roughly $770,000USD per year.

In 2015, a study found that 15.7% of American National Football League players who had retired had gone completely bankrupt within 12 years of retiring. With all that money coming their way, how was this possible?

What was the disconnect?

The NFL, NBA, and big-time rugby teams like the All Blacks compensate their players extremely well, and it happens almost immediately upon joining the team. Rather than a gradual incline, there’s usually a steep spike in income right from the start of an athlete’s career in the spotlight. At the point of that spike, they would have been working for many years to become the best at their sport.

Unfortunately, research also reflects that their training didn’t include everything it needed to.

The athletes had trained themselves to a fine point in a single field (their sport), but they’d never been taught anything about personal development or financial management.

This left a massive gap in their education, which meant most major athletes around the world weren’t equipped with the life skills they needed to exist outside of their fields of expertise.

That was a problem, so the field of personal development education was introduced into the entourages of many major sports teams around the world.

That’s where our story really starts.

Pressure and curiosity in sport

A few years ago, I worked as an assisting career consultant as part of the personal development programs on some of Aotearoa’s highest-performing sports teams. The teams were receiving many kinds of support, from learning financial literacy to advancing their careers in their chosen sport.

My job as a career coach? Help them explore careers outside of what they already knew.

For many of the athletes on these teams, there was immense pressure on their shoulders every time they stepped onto the field. After all, their income depended entirely on whether they’d be able to hit that home run, make that touchdown, or kick that goal!

All that pressure could actually be the thing that would impact their performance, so it was key to help minimize it for the players every time they stepped out.

The athletic season is a short one, so what comes next is important.

In fact, a 2017 study found that athletes tended to associate their identities with their success. So, when and if they stopped playing, many of them would experience a crisis of self.

Athletic careers don’t tend to last as long as many other careers! As a career consultant for these teams, my job was to help these players explore what else could be out there for them beyond the sport they’ve dedicated themselves to.

Enter, one of the most important career ingredients: curiosity.

I have a distinct memory of sitting in a conference room with a certain Kiwi team, taking them through the different industries they might be able to enter should rugby no longer be viable.

One of the players was sitting at the other end of the table from me, between two of his teammates. For every industry card he picked up, he really committed to looking at it and imagining it. Accountant, chef, construction worker, performer, speaker – watching his face light up, it was like seeing a man look around him and notice the world for the first time.

He could see all these potential avenues for himself that he hadn’t considered before, because he had been so focused on his sport. The pressure on his shoulders could lift, at least partially, because he knew that rugby was not the only thing out there for him!

For him and many of his fellow players, embracing that curiosity made all the difference on the field. More importantly, it made a difference in their lives. This is known by leading minds in the business management world. In great workplaces, curiosity is cultivated because it stimulates creativity, innovation, communication, and even results in fewer errors.

And this was a theme I noticed again, and again, and again throughout my work with clients from all backgrounds.

What does this mean for you?

So, what can high performance sports teach us about curiosity?

Well, it’s just like Einstein said:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”

In other words, curiosity is the key to unleashing yourself on the world, because it reminds you that you are more than what you can do right now.

It breaks open your preconceived notions of what’s possible for you. Rather than listening to what your school, your family, or anyone else says about what you can do, curiosity connects you to the voice inside that says “wow, that sounds like something I would love”.

Following that voice, your inner compass, is the secret to finding a career that lights you up on the inside while removing a lot of the pressure that comes with this work!

I talk about this more in my recent post on the trouble with the passion mentality, along with reflection questions to help you begin to unlock your curiosity.

Under pressure? Embrace your curiosity.

I have an entire module dedicated to uncovering your curiosities in my upcoming career changer’s course, ‘Become Your Own Pathfinder’. Pre-register here or sign up to my mailing list below to stay up to date with the course’s timeline. You'll also receive a FREE gift and FREE monthly newsletter with career insights to help you find the career that fits you!


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