Winning Off the Field: Teaching Athletes Skills to Manage their Lives

07/12/2013 12:16 EDT | Updated 09/11/2013 05:12 EDT
Kara Lang of Oakville gets a hug from well wishers, as Leanne DaRosa and Corolyn Darosa look on. Lang flew into Hamilton Airport on Monday afternoon after the soccer game on Sunday. JIM ROSSPhoto070691 (Photo by Jim Ross/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

With this month marking the two-year countdown to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, there has been increased conversation about the ways in which Canada can better support our country's amateur athletes. We can absolutely do more to back our developing athletes who aspire to represent Canada on the world stage.

Oftentimes, however, these conversations are reduced to determining how we can better fund our athletes. While financial support remains a huge struggle faced by amateur athletes today, there are other key components to a young athlete's development that are being overlooked.

When I was 15, I was named to Canada's National Women's Soccer Team. As a young athlete, I was lucky; I had 18 grown women to choose from as role models and their mentorship was invaluable to my development as a player and as a person. One of the key mentors in my early career was my team captain, Amy Walsh. Amy was aggressive, dominant and competitive on the field, and compassionate, intelligent, supportive and encouraging off the field. She emulated the values and skills I wanted to develop both as a person and a player. Her mentorship provided me with some life lessons that my physical training could not

Having had amazing mentors early in my career, I am excited to play a similar role for Canada's next crop of emerging elite athletes through a new national initiative called CIBC Team Next. What excites me about the program is that on top of funding, selected athletes will have the opportunity to develop life skills that will benefit them in and out of sport.

I have always felt that the best athletes are those that are well-rounded. For example, I'll never overlook the value of the education I received. And while it was not always easy balancing collegiate soccer with university studies, the time management skills I learned during those years provided me with discipline that has benefited my athletic training.

One challenge I faced early in my career was developing the mental toughness that is essential to successfully playing at a professional level. When I was starting out more than 10 years ago, we didn't talk about the mental training an athlete needs to develop off the field to be powerful on the field. That's one lesson I hope to impart on the 67 young athletes that will be chosen for CIBC Team Next. You can have all the skill in the world, but without believing in yourself, you can only get so far.

I've spent some time thinking about how I would have benefitted from this program had it existed when I was starting out. I was lucky enough to have parents who always encouraged me to have multiple interests, but I know that's not always the case. When you're an emerging athlete, it's easy to become consumed by training and competing. You sacrifice a lot for your sport, whether it's missing prom or time with friends and family. I didn't finish high school in the conventional way so that I could dedicate time to my training. I understand how that acute focus on your sport can consume all other aspects of your life, to the neglect of other areas you might want or need to develop.

Cultivating off-the-field skills can be a tough subject for a lot of emerging athletes, who may see time developing non-sport related abilities as akin to a "backup plan." But the truth is we need to put more of a focus on developing young athletes on and off their field to set them up for long-term success. Canada's emerging elite athletes deserve the opportunity to prepare for everything life will throw at them, even as they prepare to represent Canada and compete around the world.

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