Leaders on the field develop into leaders in their fields. Team captains become captains of industry. Here, how to use the skills gained through athletics to launch the right career.
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The senior journalism major on line 70 has Julie Hammer’s attention. The row containing this student’s name is shaded yellow, the color of caution, on a spreadsheet where Hammer tracks the post-grad plans of all 492 young men and women on the sports rosters at Northwestern University. Hammer marks in red students who have a job. Gray, headed to grad school. Green is for those hoping to keep playing after college – in the NFL, training to make the Olympic fencing team, golf qualifying school.
“Tell people what your aspirations are and ask for advice from individuals that have great experience in the field. In my case, transitioning from the intercollegiate atmosphere to the interscholastic world, I found a former high school athletics director as my mentor.”
Athletics director, Lafayette Jefferson High School
Ball State ’08
These days Hammer, an assistant athletics director, is fretting over that journalism major, whose talent and heart seem to outsize the shrinking job market of the industry she wants to join. The woman found time, despite the practice and competition demands of her Division I soccer team, to spend the summer before graduation in Nicaragua, telling the stories of people seeking ocular care from a nonprofit there. She pursued another opportunity in Calcutta, India, where she helped launch a magazine.
“She’s doing great, and she’s done all the right things. But she still doesn’t have a job,” said Hammer, noting that she will continue working with the soccer-playing journalism major until she finds a professional direction or chooses another route. “Once an athlete, always an athlete. We need to figure out what’s next for her.”
Across the country, in athletics departments and campus career development offices, hundreds of administrators like Hammer work to equip students with the confidence and know-how they need to land their first jobs. For college athletes, that transition can require some additional insight. Sure, balancing coursework with training, practice and competitions requires high-level time management, and being part of a team means putting an organization’s goals above your own. But how do you convince employers that your college sports experience helps build their team?
“You have to learn how to use your athletics experience,” said Kellianne Milliner, assistant athletics director for compliance, academic and student services at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. “In an interview, learn to talk about how leadership played a role in being a captain – or, if you weren’t a captain, how you work as a team.”
In other words, Milliner notes, college athletes have career skills. They just have to sell them.
Just like before a big game, hard work and preparation come before the win.
Work out early: Underclassmen should find extracurricular activities that double as professional development — such as campus professional and service learning organizations. Upperclassmen should explore leadership opportunities through the campus Student-Athlete Advisory Committee or other organizations, seek out job fairs and take a careers course.
Post up the job boards: The NCAA’s Former Student-Athlete Career Center, lists job openings and allows you to post your resume for companies looking to hire student-athletes. Teamwork.com, workinsports.com and ncaamarket.ncaa.org/jobs all focus on positions in the world of athletics.
Be a leader: Each year, NCAA leadership development offers programs to help college students develop their future. The Career in Sports Forum brings 200 selected athletes together to help them chart a career in athletics. And the Student-Athlete Leadership Forum, which selects approximately 300 athletes each year, provides personal development while working with other athletes, coaches, faculty and administrators. Talk to whoever oversees student-athlete development or life skills programs on your campus or visit NCAA.org/leadershipdevelopment.
Play to your strengths: So you think your 3.0 GPA isn’t as impressive as another student’s 3.5? Try explaining that you earned it while balancing 15 credit hours of classes and serving as captain of the conference champion field hockey team.
RELY ON A TEAM
You had coaches and teammates to help improve your athletic skills. So use the coaches and teammates who can improve your career skills.
Listen to your coach: Large campuses are starting to hire career coaches specifically for athletics. Some, such as the University of Notre Dame, are integrating their campus alumni networks, too. On campuses that don’t have athletics-specific programs, career centers help identify opportunities for networking, job shadowing and learning about different career paths.
Get LinkedIn: Creating a LinkedIn page is one of the first things career counselors suggest. Post a photo of yourself in business attire. In your summary, explain your accomplishments and strengths: Don’t just say you developed communication skills, but say you learned to communicate effectively in a competitive environment by working with 11 teammates and coaches on a daily basis. Join groups related to your career goals.
SCORE THE INTERVIEW
Your campus has resources to make personal connections with professionals happy to help you out. Don’t be surprised when networking turns out to be easier than it may seem.
Attack an opening: Go after opportunities just like you do during a game or a match. “I had a softball player, she was doing a photo shoot with ESPN, talking to the producer, letting him know what her major was. The producer said, ‘We have an internship,’” said Jawauna Harding, an athletics career consultant at Oklahoma State.
Find a go-to player: You just need one name to get started. Look for professional connections through your campus alumni relations organization or athletics fundraising club. “It’s shocking to see how willing people are to bend over backward to help you once you present yourself as someone who tries really hard and is interested,” says Stephanie Felicetti, student-athlete career program director at Notre Dame.
Get the scouting report: People like talking about themselves and their success. Break the ice by asking how they got their jobs and moved up. What is a typical day like? What are the most interesting aspects of their jobs? Showing sincere interest makes a strong impression.
Make a statement: Speak in statements, not questions. For instance, don’t ask new contacts if they know other people you can talk to. Instead, let them know that you would love to talk to others in the industry. “You give the person the option to provide you the information,” Felicetti says. “It’s less awkward.”
Go to the replay: Send contacts a thank-you note and follow up every few months when you have something substantial to tell them. Send a short email with any updates, like a link to new work. Call or leave a voicemail whenever you need to convey your energy and attitude. And don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten note — they’re so rare these days that they can make you look like an MVP.
– Brian Hendrickson
The trick is to work on this well before graduation looms. It can be difficult to switch gears, but knowing the obstacles helps overcome them.
“In athletics your name is on every stat that you have, whether that be good or bad. The same goes for when you go out into the workforce. You must be willing to put just as much work into being great at whatever field you go into because at the end of the day, that is your new stat line.”
Assistant softball coach, Defiance
Athletics administrators who work with students on life skills cite two common issues college athletes encounter when faced with life after school. First, they have so many immediate goals while in school – maintaining good grades, meeting obligations to the team, preparing for a season and for championships – that looking further into the future can be daunting.
“They’re focused on the right now,” Milliner said. “They’re always working on the next goal, but that goal might be getting to the playoffs and not preparing for beyond that. They go to class, they go to practice. Their lives are very structured.”
Along the way, though, college athletes can work on articulating how those skills they are honing translate into the workforce. Kristina Navarro, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is working with the school’s athletics director, Amy Edmonds, to develop a leadership academy for student-athletes that will help them identify their talents and learn how to articulate them.
“How do you put athletics on a resume when you’re competing against students who have had three internships or clubs and activities?” Navarro said. “They have to be able to sell the things they’ve acquired through athletics. We want to be that intentional reminder for them. It’s going to help them relate that experience to their professional future, whatever direction they’re going.”
“Don’t be afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’ If you’re surrounded by the right people, they will see it as an opportunity for them to teach and for you to learn.”
Analyst, Chicago Mercantile Exchange
A second common issue for athletes: establishing an identity outside of sports. “If you’ve been a gymnast since you were 4 years old, your social circle has always been your teammates, and your identity as an athlete has always been a big factor,” said Penny Semaia, senior associate athletics director for student life at the University of Pittsburgh. “It can be a struggle to go through that transition.”
“The most important thing is how you react to failure. Do not lose that work ethic that originally got you where you are.”
Inclusion teacher, KIPP charter school
For those who work closely with college athletes on developing career plans, overcoming that challenge means turning again and again to the same pieces of advice: The four years of college go fast. Start preparing for your post-sports career as a freshman. Seek opportunities along the way that will help sell you to employers. And don’t hide your athletics experience; it helps you stand out from a field of applicants.
“As an athletics department, everybody needs to be preparing these students from the first time they’re on campus,” said Summer Hutcheson, assistant athletics director at Mount Holyoke College. “They have four years for college – that’s the time to practice leadership skills, to have those difficult conversations about the future.”
The students who make the transition look easy, Semaia said, are those who never lose sight of their post-college game plan. “The ones that have been very successful,” Semaia said, “were able to compete at a high level and still maintain the focus of preparing for life beyond sport.”
Semaia tells the story of a recent Pittsburgh graduate who played linebacker on the football team.
“Leverage your time management skills in the interview. Explaining how I maintained a high GPA while traveling every weekend in addition to practice and two jobs definitely impressed any interviewer I spoke with.”
Industrial automation engineer, Siemens
Cross country and track and field
“The thing that really made him stand out was his vibrant, outgoing personality,” Semaia said. “He was never afraid to put himself out there and be willing to try new things. I knew he had potential; he just needed to sharpen his skills and learn how to be this super-extroverted guy in the professional world.”
Semaia took on the student as an intern in the athletics department, a position that led to an internship handling community outreach for the San Antonio Spurs NBA team. That opportunity led the former Division I college football player to figure out his career path, and today, he is a teacher at a public charter school.
“You’re not creating a backup plan for after sports,” Semaia said. “It’s a rest-of-life plan for what happens after sports.”
Hammer, the Northwestern assistant athletics director who heads the NU for Life program, understands the challenges inherent in moving from college athlete to professional. As a softball player at Syracuse, she was an Academic All-American; today, she is in the Syracuse University’s Orange Plus Hall of Fame.
“Determination, passion and drive are three qualities that good coaches AND good bosses look for. No matter what you want to do, if you possess those qualities, you’ve got a strong start.”
Assistant athletics director, Johnson State
Mount Holyoke ’11
“Know your particular story. Understand your experience and the skills you’re developing as a student-athlete, and be able to tell a compelling narrative of your story,” Hammer said. “Talk about your determination, your resilience, your time management, your teamwork. Bring all of those things up in your conversation with an employer.”
So you want to work with children? Share how you related to kids at the college volleyball camp where you coached last summer. Ever talk to media after a game? Then you have learned how to handle pressure, act professionally and represent yourself and your organization in a high-profile setting. Planning a career in business? That coach you admire has likely taught you about identifying a competitor’s strengths and weaknesses.
You’ve learned those skills better than most. Now, apply them. Articulate them. Sell yourself.