Duty of Care – Why Should We Care?

Duty of Care – Why Should We Care?

Those who work within sport will be aware of the Duty of Care in Sport Report, led by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, that was published last month. Those who do not work in sport probably less so. However, it is relevant for all of us.  In this blog I am going to outline why we should all care about the future of professional athletes (ie sportspeople) once they stop competing, and what the central tensions are around this duty of care. In doing so, I am writing with two ‘hats’ on; as an Independent Director on the Board of a National Governing Body (Parkour UK, the ‘newest’ sport to gain official recognition by the Sports Councils of the United Kingdom), and as someone whose day job partly involves working with athletes as they leave their sport and move on to pastures new.

A question for you all to set the context: my children and I were discussing Anthony Joshua’s amazing victory last Sunday morning.  We then moved on to the huge sacrifices he had made to achieve his win, and how long a boxing career he might have. We ended up trying to name as many sports as we could where age/physical condition were not a key determinant of longevity of career. Have a go yourself – we came up with only snooker, darts and less arguably, golf. 

Why it matters

You might remember that great speech that ‘Smithy’ (James Cordon) made at the 2010 Sports Personality of the Year Awards, on being presented with the spoof Coach of the Year Award.  He used his thank you speech to shoot down as many famous sportspeople as he could, basically claiming that they take public funds to just ‘run around’ or take part in ‘sitting down’ sports.  Great comedy, but near the bone?  

The duty of care towards professional athletes is a big issue in sport at the moment, not just due to some of the more high-profile issues around selection, bullying and sexism, but also around the issue of what happens to athletes when they stop competing.  What responsibility does ‘sport’ have to put time and resource into developing athletes as people as well as competitors, and supporting and preparing them for life after sport?

For me, there are three main reasons why we should care:

  • The financial contribution that so many of us make to athlete funding;

  • The current and enormous inactivity/public health challenge our country faces; and

  • The benefits that professional athletes can bring to society, post their careers.

Our pockets

How many of you pay taxes? How many of you buy national lottery tickets? In doing so, you are funding many of our athletes, in particular the elite Olympic and Paralympic athletes.   It has been estimated that each medal in Rio cost £5.5m of public funding (and figures show that our cost per medal is much more efficient than many of our competitor nations). Are you interested in knowing how your money is spent? Not just in terms of the athlete’s career, but also in terms of what benefits athletes can bring once they stop competing?


Which brings me on to public health and inactivity.  It is well recognised that one of the biggest challenges our country is currently facing relates to physical inactivity. 1 in 6 deaths results from inactivity.  In spite of the government spending millions on public health campaigns, overall Brits do less than 30 minutes exercise (including walking at a normal pace) in a week. Think of the burden this places on the NHS.

I can’t argue that there is a direct link between success at the elite sports level, and greater levels of physical activity.  In fact, there is much evidence pointing the other way.  However, I can contend that there could be. That, with a good system in place to leverage the success at the elite level, and the health benefits that good exercise levels bring, improvements could be made.  This is particularly the case for women and girls.  Whilst Sport England’s incredibly successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign has focused on the ‘all shapes and sizes’ aspect of taking part, elite female athletes can drive the message that to be strong and athletic is good; a strong body is generally a healthy one, and not something to be ashamed of.  There are many female athletes promoting exercise and nutrition, such as Jess Ennis-Hill’s link with Vitality Move.  Imagine a system that supported many more ex-athletes to do ‘something good’ around activity, and helped them build the requisite skill-set. Central to the inactivity challenge is work in primary schools – did you know that every UK-Sport funded athlete in the last Olympic Cycle was tasked to give 6 days to school visits, to inspire schoolchildren?  Again, whilst an automatic link can’t be assumed between these visits, and uptake in activity, if these visits are monitored, evaluated, refined and improved accordingly, they should be able to have some impact. I have seen with my own eyes the impact these athletes can have on girls in particular who hadn’t previously thought that running around and being active was cool.

Benefits to Society

Which brings me on to my final point, the wider benefits to society that athletes can support and drive. For this argument, I will point you in the direction of a piece by Emma Atkins, Chief Executive of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. Emma discusses the potential of retiring athletes to be an asset to society beyond sport, both in terms of social value, but also in terms of impact on the economy from the attitudes and mindset that athletes bring to what they do.  Do take a quick look at this before reading on. https://www.damekellyholmestrust.org/news/trust-responds-to-duty-of-care-in-sport-report

We know from the programmes that we deliver in business, how much of a difference embedding these attitudes and mindsets can have to the performance of an organisation. 

The Challenges

So there are some compelling reasons why we should care about what happens to athletes when they retire from their sport, particularly those who benefit from public funding.

Let’s just take a quick look at it from the athletes’ perspective as well. A common misconception is that most athletes are ‘sorted’ when they leave their sport; that they have made enough money and don’t need to work again.  Well, the reality is that most athletes, when they retire, need to find another career.  Only a very small percentage, the high profile ones we read about and watch, can afford from a financial point of view to rest on their laurels. Most athletes, even those who have been successful, won medals and trophies, and retired after a full career, need to earn a crust like the rest of us.  That’s without even starting on the athletes who suffer career-ending injuries, often when they are just getting going; those who lose their funding as they don’t quite make the grade; those who don’t get picked or kept on by their sport/club. And yet, to get to the level they have been competing at, and achieve the glory not just for themselves and their teams but often for their huge number of fans, and sometimes even for their country, they have had to make huge sacrifices.  Sacrifices not just in their personal lives, but in terms of their education and all-round development. Not just that, but how many of you are in a career where you will no longer be able to ‘compete’ once you get to your mid-thirties – where that is the ceiling for you, and where you will need to start all over again, from the bottom, in a new career?

There are two key challenges, as I see it, to progress in this area; of a duty of care towards professional athletes to help set them up for their next stage of life.

Disparate group

The first issue is that we are not talking about a homogenous group.  You can’t lump all ‘athletes’ together in the same boat. Some sports require early specialisation (for example tennis, swimming); some sports have an even younger retirement age than others (think gymnasts); some athletes will maintain their education alongside their sport for longer than others (with for example rowers at the opposite end of the spectrum from many other sports).  Some sports are within the UK Sport system (Olympic and Paralympic sports); others have their own bodies that support them (for example the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA)).  Within each sport, the range of issues and individuals that they are dealing with will be huge.  The range of stakeholders is also large and disparate, adding another layer of complexity.

Current Performance v Future Life

For me this is key. We hear it all the time from our work with athletes, and it is something which you can understand, from all perspectives.  Imagine you are the Performance Director of a sport. You have been tasked with delivering x number of medals at a big championships coming up, and your job is on the line.  If you have an athlete who comes to you and says I need to have the day off to [finish my dissertation/gain work experience/volunteer somewhere] what’s your first priority going to be as the Performance Director? The Championships. And if you feel that giving that particular athlete that day off could jeopardise the chances of success, what are you going to say, even if you know that that might not be in the long term interests of the athlete?

Many athletes already have access to really good support that can help them (the Performance Lifestyle teams at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) being a key example).  But are they encouraged to take it up? Do they understand the benefits of thinking about the future, whilst competing, or do they take a ‘leave it til it’s relevant’ approach (and we know from many athletes that that is exactly what happens).

So the challenge is to provide an environment where thinking about the future becomes the norm for athletes whilst still competing.  Where peers, and others within your performance environment, look at you askance if you are not doing so. Where others within the system, from the Board through to the performance director and coaches, not only encourage athletes to do so, but understand the benefits that this can bring.  And this is where it gets interesting…..

There is huge amounts of anecdotal evidence from athletes on how thinking about their futures, continuing their education, taking on some part time work (where possible) actually improves their performance as an athlete. Reasons given range from less stress and worry about the next step, a healthier perspective, improved thinking skills, and so on.  Not just in individual sports, but in team sports. Rugby Union is particularly good at this, driven by the great work the RPA does, built on even further by some of the clubs such as Saracens, who even hold weekly philosophy workshops for their players! Yes, Saracens feel a duty to help players think about their careers post sport, but they are also doing these things due to the link that they can see between these, and performance on the pitch. 

Compelling evidence, driven by rigorous research and insight, could help drive this change of mindset in a very significant way. 

To sum up this context, I am going to turn to an Article that Michael Atherton, ex England cricket captain and now a broadcaster and journalist, recently wrote in the Times.  He was discussing the retirement, aged 25, of Indian cricketer Zafar Ansari, after only five months of playing for his country. Ansari had said, shortly after he had been called up on an England tour for the first time: “Cricket is not the end for me. My life is not directed towards it. Cricket is a part of my life.” But as Atherton goes on to say, once upon a time it would have been easier to combine an interesting working life with sport, but the game is now more demanding of its players.  For cricket, read sport in general – the success our athletes achieve, and the level of professionalism that requires, occurs at the expense of broader welfare.

So that is why the Duty of Care piece is so important, and how significant the challenges are for the system as a whole.  But then sport does love a challenge……