New 'Game Plan' helps Canadian athletes with life after sport

It can be tough for elite athletes to figure out what to do once the cheering stops. The Canadian Olympic Committee's new "Game Plan" initiative aims to help them make the jump to a new career, writes CBC Sports' Scott Russell.

Program aimed at transition to new careers

Former Olympic gymnast Kyle Shewfelt, seen here performing at the 2008 Beijing Games, found himself "in a pretty dark place" for a time when he didn't have a clear career path after retiring from his sport. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press/Canadian Press/File)

Kyle Shewfelt is an Olympic champion who won gymnastics gold in Athens in 2004. 

He retired after the Beijing Games in 2008. 

He was 27 years old, had been an elite gymnast since age six, and had no clue what to do with the rest of his life.

"There was about a year and a half when I was in a pretty dark place. It was a tumultuous time. There was no plan. There was no productivity and I spent a lot of it sleeping," Shewfelt said from Calgary while walking his dog in a nearby park.

He now owns and operates a successful gymnastics business, but it took him four years of wondering what he wanted to do before he found the next path. 

"Every day was a battle. I was fighting myself because I didn't have a career, I didn't finish my university degree. I didn't do a lot of things. A lot of athletes get lonely when they retire. You feel a lack of stability in your life. Your people aren't around you anymore and now you have to make it on your own."

Shewfelt isn't alone in the struggle with career transition that occurs for every high performance athlete. For many, it manifests itself extremely early in life and for the most part without the financial resources that professional athletes can count on.

Timely, essential

That's why the new "Game Plan" initiative — which has the Canadian Olympic Committee partnering with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Sport Institutes, Deloitte (the largest professional services network in the world) and Morneau Shepell (a leader in workplace mental health) — is both timely and essential.

It's a comprehensive wellness program that becomes available to about 2,500 current national team athletes and alumni. It includes resources for education, skill development, mental health, networking and career transition.

We can't ask our athletes to make sacrifices for family, community and country and not help them with their development as people, both on and off the field of play.- Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Overholt

"We have a moral responsibility here," said Chris Overholt, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee. He started working on Game Plan years ago when he first came to the job. It percolated after long discussions with high-profile and successful athletes who expressed severe anxiety about the impending end of their careers.

"I heard stories of people who won gold medals and then lay on a couch for a year because they couldn't figure out what to do next," Overholt recalled. 

"We can't ask our athletes to make sacrifices for family, community and country and not help them with their development as people both on and off the field of play. We should create the best possible sports system for our athletes and coaches and make sure that we do all that we can so that it prospers, so that in the moment, our Olympians and Paralympians can be as good as they can be as performers, but also as human beings."

In the first year, Game Plan will make it possible for carded athletes — those on national teams and those two years out from retirement — to access an exclusive and extensive job board with a wide variety of employment opportunities. It will connect athletes with professional career transition advisers located at the seven Canadian Sports Institutes across the country.

In addition, through the Morneau Shepell network, athletes will be able to get confidential mental and physical health counseling — in person or over the phone, at any time — wherever they are in the world. Finally, a series of summits will bring together athletes on a regional basis to be educated in financial management, brand management and career development.

Holistic approach

The aim is to take a holistic approach to athlete preparation for the job of being a national team athlete during the formative stages, the prime of competitive life and what comes after the peak performance days are over.

Elaine Allard is a 38-year-old guard with the Canadian women's wheelchair basketball team that just qualified for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics by winning silver at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto. She's been employed for a decade as a personal services advisor with Royal Bank and is currently on leave to prepare for next summer in Brazil.

Game Plan works because it values the person as much as the athlete.- Canadian wheelchair basketball player Elaine Allard

While she trains at the Canadian Sport Institute Ontario, she helps pay the bills by working part-time as a receptionist.

"Game Plan works because it values the person as much as the athlete," she said. "This is about forming an identity beyond sport. You never know when your career might end. You need to be prepared for that moment."

"This is a huge step in the right direction," Shewfelt added. "It will create a culture of support and athletes will no longer feel like they're spit out of a blender. Employers out there are looking for skill and this will help athletes to build those skills before they leave sport.

"You work a lifetime to become the best and to represent your country and when you're done you often don't have anything to show for it. You have to find a way to transition. This will affect a lot of people."

Overholt agrees, understanding the often idealistic journey of an Olympic or Paralympic athlete should not end up crashing to earth when the first finish line is reached.

"We all make choices in life and they have chosen to be athletes," he said.  "They've worked hard to represent themselves and their country. Our job is to help them with their development as people while fostering the strongest Canadian teams possible."

For now, it's about more than owning the podium and producing fleeting moments of glory. It's about charting a course whereby Olympians and Paralympians can remain contributors to the Canadian landscape long after their playing days are done.


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