The Athlete Afterlife by Emily Borthwick

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‘The Athlete Afterlife’ – how high performance environments allow a simplistic and successful transition to the world of work.

“Guidance for athletes to maximise potential in high performing environments”

It isn’t uncommon that athletes struggle to accept that sport doesn’t last forever. What feels like a lifetime of success is usually only 20 years on average[13]. What happens after that? The fear of entering the real world and realising hours of pushing your body and mind to its limits will not immediately get you a job. But wait? Are the skills we learn and the environments we find ourselves in not actually too dissimilar to those jobs as we think? Of course not!

In this blog, we aim to look at the High-Performance Environment model[6,11,13] by substituting the Leader and Performer role for Coach and Athlete. There are no limitations here – the Master and the Apprentice, the Actor and the Understudy, the Manager and the Player. Application of this model is endless…

What’s missing?

Researchers of sport psychology found that creating and sustaining high performance in organisations requires consistent attention on key areas within a coordinated system[6]. Learning transferable skills from competitive sporting environments can influence success in the world of work outside of sport[13].

Athletes who dedicate their lives to sport regardless of experience often find themselves getting lost in the world as they lack understanding and depth within their own capacity to continue success in future businesses[15]. This blog is designed to help athletes pinpoint similarities between high performance sport and business environments.

Do you feel that your sporting vision has been established? Is there a provided meaning and direction for your future? Does your performance environment challenge you? Are you surrounded by the right people? Lets find out.

High Performance Environment Model

Figure 1. Revised High Performance Environment (HPE) Model [6]

The creation of this model allows organisations to dictate and influence detailed predictions of performance produced by athletes. This then allows athletes to take responsibility of their own performance environments to ensure full capacity of high quality outcomes are achieved[10].

Performance Environment

What is it?

Environments that catalyse High Performance are defined as:

“The conditions in which performers operate”[6].

Performers is a diverse term that is used within The High Performance Environment model. In development, this model is applicable across multiple performance domains, including sport, military, medicine and business[11].

Figure 2: Usain Bolt[19]  
Figure 3: RAF Chinook[16] 
Figure 4: Doctors in theatre[5] 

Despite emphasis around performance excellence in sport, the principles discussed in this blog consider great transferability between domains, including its complexity and factors involved[15].

The demands to create a highly effective performance environment are exhausting. Before we disect the HPE model it’s important to highlight that demands are “requirements of a job”[10]. Therefore, maximising support for all involved will help minimise the constraints of such demands. Environmental supports include natural, physical, intellectual, technical, financial and social factors, all of which should be made available to athletes.

Performers in both sport and business often collapse under pressures of performance demands.

London 2012 Olympic Games preparation camp[3]

The Olympic Games are greatly valued worldwide, especially with the incredible amount of public funding available for elite sport. National governing bodies (NGBs) are in control of ensuring each athlete representing their country is physically, psychologically, and emotionally ready to optimally perform. However, there is said to be physical bias [14] and hunt for medals rather than development of athletes. Pressures to perform cause chaos, as the ignorance to athlete wellbeing often leads to increases in ending careers. The delivery of preparation camps is vital for production of high-quality performance. To produce effective preparation environments, NGBs must consider their delivery and planning approach holistically, and somewhat similar to the Model we are going to discuss[2]. This can also be said for individual athletes and their coaches considering their own approach to competitions.


To achieve common goals within a team, business or cohort, it is down to one influential individual[6]. High performance environments are complex and must be led by individuals who have a clear idea of what they are doing and where they are going.

Who is your leader?

Your coach?

A manager?

The director?


Athletes depend on coaches to produce training programmes and collaborate with sport science teams and support staff. To create High PerformanceCoach must be actively ensuring you are maximising your potential and achieving your goals[9,10].


Everyone has a dream. To become a pilot, a doctor or even an Olympic champion[3]. Coaches (leaders) must establish a vision. Visions provide meaning and direction towards an outcome. Cognitive psychologists consistently hammer the impact of imagery and seeing is believing[20]. Without establishing a future image or outcome there is no inspiration.


Do you feel challenged in your work? Are goals set that allow you to adapt and stretch your capabilities beyond your comfort zone. Are you being pushed enough to reach your ever-growing potential? A clear understanding of how to achieve goals must be outlined, along with actions required to change from current state to future physical developments[6].


Sport has its ups and downs, like any business, but is your environment engulfed with likeminded individuals who are prepared to be your shoulder to cry on. Emotional, informational, esteemed and tangible – all types of support that must be adequately received. The bad will hit harder than the good, but the comeback is always stronger than the setback. How sufficient is your support? To achieve performance excellence, it’s vital your support team are optimally performing in their own roles[2].

Performance Enablers

Regardless of physical characteristics, athletes can be influenced by the effect of situational variables, all of which are controlled by the coach. Here we look at Information, Instruments, and incentives all of which are Performance Enablers.


Fully understand your goals and take responsibility of your role as an athlete. Compartmental structural feedback from coaches and designate social support.


Tangible support – which must be made available to athletes: Physical instruments (sports equipment), Knowledge-related (training development and technology access), and Structural (communication between team members).


Maintenance of motivation to enable athletes to perform. The social-environmental tools should cover competency (affirm feedback), autonomy (choice and understanding) and relatedness (belonging to an environment and feeling part of the sport).

These are environmental tools required for athletes to effectively perform in their sporting environment[4]. The responsibility again falls on the leaders to ensure performers access to these enablers to ensure performance is optimum[11].


Humans naturally capitalise on emotional support[20]. The tough days where we lack motivation or things just aren’t coming together. We appreciate those around us. Emotional support requires emotional intelligence, which has been found to help improve performance as a result of regulating and understanding our emotions[6].

There is no doubt as athletes you sacrifice a lot for your sport. Birthdays, parties, the “lets just have 1 pint that turns into a 4am kind of nights”.

But think about this.

Someone is sacrificing a whole lot more just for you to be successful. This is why relationships and having the right people around you is so important to high performance. Trust is fundamental to any relationship – everyone knows that. But did you know that coach-athlete relationships can last a lifetime, even after sport[4]. Coaches are our parent, teacher, influencers, guides, a shoulder. They want to get the best out of us as athletes, but also want us to be happy. Sport doesn’t last forever, but relationships can. Trust in your leader, your coach. Their commitment to you is second to none. Likewise in sport, workplace attitudes, behaviours and capacity are constantly being assessed. But facilitation of high performance doesn’t come from late nights and lack of hard work. Years of resilience[6]. Being able to communicate effectively within your team. Engaging in sessions and always trying to better yourself. These characteristics are shown whether you are performing in a sport event or in a work environment.

Commit to your beliefs and values, act appropriately and professionally, fulfil your role as an athlete. 

Trust your PEOPLE.


One thing to take away from this blog. Look at things holistically, the WHOLE part. If it isn’t going to change what happens in the next 5 years, then does it really need thinking about for more than 5 minutes?[9]

Culture is all around us. Changing and adapting, perceived by those within a team, an organisation and business[6]. The HPE model emphasises the balance of achievement in productivity, wellbeing whilst we develop, innovation to be creative, and our internal processes that accept controlling the controllables. Performing well is an achievement. Staying injury-free allows us to develop and stay well. Adapting and changing as we progress through our careers gives us the chance to be creative with training and experience. Accepting ‘it is what it is’ is simply letting go of things we are incapable of adapting.

Performance Outcome

Leadership, Performance Enablers, People and Culture ultimately determine the Performance Outcome. The successful collaboration of these factors establish the final piece, and are found in every form of successful high performing businesses, medical centres, military cohorts and sports teams. Maintenance of these factors is essential for sustaining high performance. Retaining, retraining and nurturing athletes will allow them to achieve a simple and successful transition to life outside of sport. Those talented enough, those who work hard enough, and those who are looked after holistically will be successful[17].

So what does it take to PERFORM?

Even if you think you have it together, I guarantee there’s something missing – you just haven’t thought about it yet.

Maximise capacity, adapt learning and communicate, follow these 4 tips.

  1. Lead for influence
  2. Ensure you have the performance tools to enable you to efficiently operate
  3. Surround yourself with the right people
  4. Recognise that no individual is more important than the whole[8]

– even if you think you can, you will not be able to do it alone.

Beyond the Athlete

The Athlete Afterlife

High competitive drive and prowess create results, both of which are shown within the higher positions of sport and business environments[15]. For sports performers, the dedication to vision and challenge throughout a career will be embedded within future actions towards projects in later life.

It is important for NGBs to consider performance environments holistically and educate the athletes appropriately and safely. By understanding the interrelations of each of the levels discussed in this blog will allow for opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of high quality performances, regardless of the work domain[17,18]. Research[11] has shown this idea to highlight the High Performance Environment model, allowing athletes hidden in the shadows of their NGBs to come forward and identify the flaws in system. By creating an environment based on the points we have discussed, the correct attitudes and behaviours should create high performance.

Athletes should be more confident when applying for jobs. Their application of skill to their sport and dedication is easily repeatable in a work environment. The hard facts are most jobs require specific training and qualification. But even starting at the bottom of the ladder and applying the same attitudes and behaviours shown in sport, you can’t go far wrong.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention… You should know (1) what a high-performance environment is, (2) how to create a high-performance environment if you didn’t already have one, and (3) have a better understanding of how your capacity as an athlete and skills you have learned are easily transferable to business and other work domains.

Written by Emily Borthwick
Great Britain High jumper

Sport and Exercise Psychology MSc Student, Loughborough University


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The Athlete Afterlife

Written by Emily Borthwick

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