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Retiring Olympic athletes provide a model for managing the modern life

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Elite athletes who opt for education alongside their sport are better equipped to cope with modern life when they retire according to a leading psychologist, whose findings will be documented as part of the Festival of Social Science in November.

More than 15,000 athletes are estimated to compete at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with many likely to bow out from their sport when the curtain closes in September.

Professor David Lavallee, Head of the School of Sport at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence, studied the transitions Olympic and Paralympic athletes make to other careers.

His research will be presented tomorrow (Tuesday 1 November) at the launch of Making the Case for the Social Sciences – Sport and Leisure, the fifth in a series of publications by the Academy of Social Sciences and part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s annual Festival of Social Science.

Professor Lavallee found that athletes were often unwilling to plan in advance for a career after sport, and that those better prepared managed to balance education and career development alongside training and competition.

“Retirement is commonly associated with ageing employees, but in the world of elite sport, retirees tend to be young adults who have most of their working lifespan ahead of themselves,” explained Professor Lavallee.

“These athletes have to make a transition into alternative professions and have to learn and apply new skills. In recent years, career and education support programmes for athletes have been developed in countries around the world.

“In Scotland, for example, the national student scholarship programme Winning Students provides flexible institutional and educational support for student-athletes to help them balance competing in performance sport while studying for exams.

“Elite athletes are also interesting models for the wider population who are facing longer working lives and adjusting to the continued introduction of new technologies within the home, work, and wider environments.”

Olympian Andrew Hunter, pictured, retired from competitive swimming last December, bowing out with a silver medal for Scotland at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games in a highly successful career where he medalled at European and World Championships and represented Great Britain at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

A Business Studies and Accountancy graduate from Stirling, Hunter now works as a Sales Assistant with Computacenter in St Albans, London.

The 25-year-old said: “Getting a degree was an essential; and not just a degree, but a good degree as otherwise employers just aren’t interested. Swimming requires a lot of dedication to get up early for training every morning and the routine can be quite tedious, all you think about is your sport. I found the education aspect complimented my swimming as it gave me a release away from my sport.

“It is a massive leap of faith to finish a career in sport and start something new. Swimming represented all my ‘experience’ on my cv. The degree was vital as an educational qualification, but the social skills I’ve picked up through swimming have been just as important.

“Sport taught me a multitude of softer skills like how to be determined, time management and communication techniques, all of which I’ve relied on in my new career. It is a big world out there, but retiring athletes shouldn’t be frightened by it as it has lots to offer and athletes have lots to offer it.”

The Academy’s launch event on Tuesday (1 November) sees a key note address by The Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, a current member of the Olympics Board and further speakers include Fulham FC Foundation Chief Executive Stephen Day and UK Sport International Development Director Debbie Lye.

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