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Money Smart Athlete Blog

Juggling a family and an elite career in individual sports

By Niovie Constantinou, Contributor

In the 2016 Olympics, swimmer Michael Phelps won his 23rd Olympic gold and 28th medal overall in the 4×100m, and at the same time, he broke the world record of the most gold medals won in a single Olympic Games event, which had stood since 1972. Also in 2016, a few months before the Olympics, Phelps’ son was born.  So, can an elite athlete manage to have both a successful career and a family?

Being an athlete in individual sports may bring with it glory, but it comes with certain caveats which may hinder the athlete’s personal life. To reach the top, athletes need to set extraordinary goals, which means making sacrifices in certain parts of their lives. For Phelps, during the 5 years leading up to the 2008 Olympics, this meant not taking a single day off training. Not for his birthday, not Christmas, not even to recover from an illness or injury.

Professional athletes train long hours all year round and concentrate on developing excellent eating and sleeping habits so that they are at peak performance at all times. To make the situation more difficult, competitions and training facilities are often far from home, which means that athletes either travel a lot or are away from their families most of the year. Decreased time for family and social interaction may lead to feelings of stress and isolation and deteriorate the athlete’s mental health as well as relationships with family. For this reason, athletes need to make the necessary arrangements and organize their time well, so as to create a balance between work and home. When thinking about how to strike a balance, you should:

  • Try to have as much control over your training schedule by pre-planning when, where and how long for you will train. This way you will be able to adjust your schedule in a way that allows for family time too. When setting your schedule, discuss it with your coach and your spouse to ensure that it works well both professionally and personally.
  • Make sure that you have a supportive training team that understands your personal and family responsibilities, and a family that accepts what you do, and try to accommodate your training demands. Be clear about your priorities and prioritize both work and family time, even if this means saying no to other things.  
  • Try to integrate training and family time. Several major-league baseball teams now provide players with on-site child care and family lounges to help players create more time for family and personal obligations. Even if this is not offered in individual sports, you could make similar arrangements, such as, finding a training center near home so you have easy access to your family, or flexible childcare that is willing to work around your schedule so that you can maximize time with your children.
  • Leave work at work. An important element in finding balance is to ensure that you spend time with your family and while at home, focus all your energy on your family instead of trying to multitask or allowing work issues to spill over from one realm into the other. When you are home, really be there and make the effort to grow your relationships with the people who are there to support you.

Juggling a family and an elite sports career at the same time is not an easy task.  Elite sports careers require a lot of sacrifices and so does raising a family.  However, with careful planning and by creating the right support systems, elite athletes can strike a balance and thus manage to have both a successful career and a great family at the same time!