The phrase “An athlete will die twice, the first time at retirement” will ring true for many athletes. After years of investing so much time and energy to the sport, they’ve created lasting memories, built lifelong friendships, and developed personality traits during the peaks and troughs of their career. The extensive personal sacrifice required often molds an identity that is tied to being an athlete, so facing the reality that a sports career is over is difficult for many athletes.
Well, athletes, life after your sports career can be exciting! The business world wants (and, frankly, needs!) you, and your identity as an athlete will empower your career in business. Some schools have built programs with athletes in mind, such as Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, which helps NFL players advance in their post-NFL career, as well as Harvard Business School’s Crossover Into Business program and Dartmouth Tuck’s Next Step program.
If you’re a former athlete who’s targeting an MBA but unsure how to leverage your athletic career when completing your application, let me first assure you that your athletic experiences are directly applicable to your business school success. Translating those experiences to business isn’t always easy, but I encourage you to demonstrate what you learned in specific situations and show how it’s helped you grow as a person.
As a first step, think about the personality traits and skills you’ve displayed as an athlete. If this doesn’t come easy, ask your former teammates and family members what three words they’d use to describe what you brought to the field (or court, track, etc.). Once you gather your list of personality traits/skills, look at each word on the list and come up with some examples that describe how you’ve demonstrated this characteristic.
Here are some examples that apply to many athletes. The key in explaining these throughout your application is to show, don’t tell, that you have these qualities by demonstrating them:
Grit and Persistence
Have you ever had an injury? Dealing with physical pain is one thing, but maintaining your focus and discipline on rehabilitation can be exhausting when the rest of your team and competition continue to advance. So, how did you deal with this?
I had a client whose knee injury during college required surgery and kept him sidelined for more than six months. When he came back, he was slower than before. However, while injured, he didn’t wait around to improve—instead, he became a student of the game while watching his team and competition in games, practices, and videos. He scouted out other players and found different techniques to help position himself, anticipate movements, and keep pace even though he had lost a step. Later, once he got a job at a marketing firm and noticed his peers getting promotions, he refocused his efforts and doubled down in his areas of weakness in order to maintain pace—but he actually ended up accelerating his career faster than he’d anticipated.
How did you demonstrate leadership in your sport? Some forms of leadership are more formal than others, but all leadership experiences can provide fantastic learning opportunities regarding your personal leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses. For example, some athletes lead their team’s off-field gatherings, such as organizing team meals before a big game or even putting together an off-season training regime. Are you more of a vocal leader in the locker room, perhaps helping freshmen/rookies acclimate? Think about your leadership style and roles. How have they manifested in your professional life?
Businesses need people who know how to work together with others toward a common goal. Even more individual sports such as tennis require working with and supporting team members (including extended team members such as coaches and trainers). What kind of a teammate were you, and what actions did you take to demonstrate this? What did you learn through your athletic experience that you’ve been able to apply in your career?
I’ll bet you still have some losses, close calls, and rivals lingering in your thoughts, maybe even keeping you up at night. If the will to win motivated you to put in extra training on the field, then it will (or probably has) in business too. Think about times when you took considerable action to help solidify a victory. What specifically did you do while preparing, how did you feel, and what did you learn throughout the process? Now, reflecting on your business experience, have you been able to apply those learnings?
Nobody is born an elite athlete. As a former athlete, you undoubtedly worked on improving your areas of weakness. Think about times when you felt it was necessary for your athletic growth to step out of your comfort zone. How did you identify areas for growth? What made you feel motivated to work on these areas and improve? In your experiences outside of sports, think of areas you’ve focused on that pushed your comfort zone. Do you see any similarities with your athletic growth mindset that helped you turn weaknesses into strengths?
Goal Setting and Strategy
Although you put in a lot of time on the field (or in the gym, track, pool, etc.), have you ever reflected on what you wanted to achieve? Of course you have—setting goals is part of sports. How did you go about setting goals?
I had a client who told me he set more than 20 separate goals for himself his freshman year. Although this showed his aggressive mindset, it also overwhelmed him and made it hard to put together a strategy and track his progress. When he came back his sophomore year, he set three very specific goals, each with targets throughout the year, and he worked toward these goals methodically—improving on almost a daily basis in order to perform at the level he wanted to achieve. He told me that he learned how to prioritize by eliminating less important goals and also how to focus only on what he could control. In his professional life, this translated into making daily improvements in focused areas, resulting in two promotions within three years (compared to a more typical five years for his peers). Demonstrating this early learning experience around goal setting was an important part of his MBA applications.
Arriving to practice early, staying late, eating properly, rehabbing an injury, scouting out the competition… The list goes on. And as a high-performance athlete, you know that just showing up on the day of competition won’t cut it. Beyond just the athletic side, have you ever had to be prepared outside of sports while also balancing the sports load?
For example, one client told me how he had a group project due after three straight weeks of road games. Because he traveled each of the three weeks leading up to the project’s due date, he had to be proactive with his group so they could meet in person while he was in town. Even though his group wanted to wait until the week before the project was due and spend an intense weekend putting everything together, he had to get creative in order to convince them to begin far in advance so that he could contribute.
What you learned in your athletic career has taught you many lessons. Admissions committees want to hear about those lessons, how you learned them, and how you’ve applied them in your early career. If you can make this connection, your athletic career can help you gain admission to the MBA programs of your choice and propel your business career.