Northwestern Mutual

Preparing Young Athletes Before They Go Pro

Learn how student-athletes can translate what they learn in sports to marketable skills for employers.

Preparing Young Athletes Before They Go Pro

Northwestern Mutual Contributor, Northwestern Mutual

By Sonya Stinson

You've got a star athlete in the family with a shelf full of awards, a college scholarship and big dreams of turning pro. But no matter how bright your kid’s future in sports may look now, you need to make sure there’s another career game plan drawn up.

The reality is that only a small fraction of student athletes will play professional sports, and those who do will have relatively short careers. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA®) estimates that in five of six top collegiate sports, fewer than 2% of student athletes will end up in the professional leagues. Baseball is the one exception, with 9.4% of NCAA® players getting called up by the pros. But that still means more than 90% of college athletes can anticipate post-college careers in something other than sports.

Students’ level of readiness for these careers depends a lot on how effectively they take advantage of some of the job preparation tools available to them in college—a challenge, as student athletes’ demanding schedules make it difficult to squeeze in co-ops and resume-writing workshops.

“What they often lack is business acumen and some of the other things they would learn through an internship or other professional experiences that other students may have more access to or more time to get involved with,” said Michael Van Grinsven, CLU®, director of Northwestern Mutual’s Financial Representative Internship program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The good news is that student athletes can score significant points in the job market with their resilience, competitiveness and commitment to being team players. Those who learn to juggle classes, playing time and career preparation are also honing some pretty impressive time management skills that will serve them well in the work world.

Philip Friedrich, a former Northwestern Mutual intern and now a full-time financial representative in Lincoln, Nebraska, understands the juggling act all too well. He played basketball at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska, and interned at Northwestern Mutual from the summer following his freshman year through June 2013, a month after receiving his degree in business administration from Concordia.

From pre-season workouts in September through a regular season that lasts until March, college basketball players face a relentless practice schedule, but Friedrich was determined to make his work experience a priority as well. The rigorous schedule forced him to be disciplined and focused, getting up each morning at 6 a.m. and meticulously mapping out his activities for every half hour until his bedtime at about midnight.

Fortunately, Friedrich discovered that he thrives on a tight schedule. With too much free time, he said, he’s more likely to procrastinate: “The more things I have on my plate, the better things run for me.”

Another asset Friedrich acquired playing college sports is the professional maturity that comes from a willingness to be coached.

“To be successful as a basketball player, you have to handle both positive and negative feedback,” Friedrich says.

This experience adds to his ability to accept feedback as part of his professional growth. When he gets a critique from a mentor, he says: “(I understand that) This person has been around longer than I have, and even though they’re saying things I don’t want to hear, they are saying things that will ultimately help me to be as successful as I can be.”

To help student athletes translate the skills they've mastered on the playing fields into prized qualifications for the workforce, Northwestern Mutual, in partnership with the National Association of College Directors of Athletics, created the Life After Athletics program. Pilots were tested in fall 2012 in the Midwest and the program was made available to schools nationwide the fall of 2013.

Participants attend on-campus interactive sessions covering business etiquette, interviewing basics, networking, resume writing and creating a 45-second elevator speech. By the end of the program, the students are much more confident about the value of their athletic experience in the job market. “They end up realizing they are probably more marketable than they thought,” said Van Grinsven.

Indeed, a quality that always jumps out at Van Grinsven about former student athletes at Northwestern Mutual is their ability to bounce back from adversity. “They commonly talk about getting knocked down … and then kind of picking yourself up and going after it again,” he said.

From the athlete’s perspective, Friedrich agreed. “You have to have resilience and be mentally tough to play sports and do this job. You are going to have adversity and when adversity strikes you need to be able to confront it head on and move past it,” he said.

Another asset is the visualization technique many athletes use to prepare for a competition. From time to time, Friedrich speaks to new groups of Northwestern Mutual interns, and he’s now coaching two of them. He tells them to make a list of goals for the year that would meet their definition of success—achievements they can imagine looking back on and feeling proud.

Friedrich said that glimpse of what he calls “your most amazing future” works very well as a motivator: “When you can see where you want to go, it’s a lot easier to get there.”

Sonya Stinson is a writer for print and web publications, businesses and nonprofit organizations. She writes about higher education, careers, small business, retirement and personal finance.