Max Kalis has found a passion for helping athletes transition through life after sport. (Photo: Supplied/Design: Theo Dimou)

For every young kid playing sports, the ultimate dream is to be good enough to break through at the very elite level and represent themselves either individually, for a club, or the national team.

Breaking through demands years of dedication and sacrifice as well as talent and luck which is always going to be at the expense of forging other career paths. And even after breaking into the elite, more often than not, dreams implode sooner rather than later.

Some individuals find it very easy to flick the switch. However, many former athletes struggle mentally with even the thought of leaving behind what they have trained their entire lives for in exchange for a new environment – it can be a highly stressful and confusing time.

In this mini-series presented by The Inner Sanctum, athletes both past and present will share their stories of how they transitioned during life after sport.

These interviews stem from research by Max Kalis, a career coach specialising in athlete career transitions, in which a number of people were name-dropped by others as having a strong approach to transitioning. To kick off the series, we talk to the man behind the research.

Q: Can you describe your journey and how you pursued your current career?
A: I did 10 years of Design Strategy work which helps businesses and projects to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’. Design is about finding better options and Strategy is about making better choices. It’s a bit like consulting work. However, around 2021 I began falling out of love with the roles I found and couldn’t ignore it. I fell back on what I knew, Design Strategy. The result was a program that I realised could help not just me but other individuals going through their own career change. 

During the first year of coaching, I had a number of niche audiences in mind – return-to-work parents, startup founders, corporate escapees, privileged students and retired athletes. I can relate to these groups having been all of these things myself. However, the response from athletes proved to be stronger than all the other groups put together, so the response from athletes decided the direction for me.

In 2023, I spent a year researching athlete transitions in Australia to learn everything possible in that space. The focus was the perspectives of current athletes, past athletes and non-athletes in sport which included 250 participants. The full results are now publicly available on my website www.maxkalis.com.

Q: How have the past 10 years transpired in terms of your experience throughout the industry and what were the highs and lows?
A: The design strategy work that I mentioned earlier led me down the path of coaching athletes and helping transition their careers to the next stage which I’ve been doing now for over two years.

I started two brands initially, one being named ‘The Last Coach’ which I view as a spare brand. I was inspired to create that brand based on the potential to create a mini-series of ‘where are they now’ type stories which the Australian audience has a real appetite for.

The low point so far has been scrambling around with disjointed clients here and there, but I thoroughly enjoy the work that I do and it gives me great joy and pride that I can play a small part in helping people recover mentally toward the next chapter of their life.

Q: How important is creating an analytics model for your clients to understand and interpret?
A: There’s a big journey I go on with clients and I’ve called out that there are strong parallels between sport and addiction. I think those who succeed in sports tend to be obsessive where there is a fine line between that possessive nature serving as a positive compared to a negative.

We tend to run half a dozen sessions and use the first three to discover insights and unpack the confusion and uncertainty. We create a plan on where you are, and where you want to get to, and write down a custom plan for getting to ‘A’ to ‘B’. The next three sessions are about implementing the plan and putting those processes into action.

Q: How can you make sure that your coaching work has an impact?
A: Firstly, the process is flexible and customised in order to pursue only what each client wants and needs. The solutions are not already lined up before they start, as the client finds their own solutions and is simply aided in unlocking them.

Secondly, in what’s known in the design world as the ‘Agile’ approach, we run a series of experiments to explore ‘hypotheses’. Basically, we validate what we think we know and what we need to know to make progress. This way, progress is built on solid proof instead of hope.

Thirdly, it’s important for clients to understand that progress comes in different forms. It’s not just the reality of their situation that is going to change, it’s usual for there to be significant change in their expectations and attitudes towards work also. Throughout the program, we check in on the changes taking place in terms of the reality of their situation but also in terms of how they feel about their relationship with their career.

Q: When you attempt to help athletes transition into a new lifestyle, you mentioned that the ‘why’ factor is important. Why is that aspect critical in your form of work?
A: The logic follows after speaking to coaches that anything that preoccupied an athlete in their mind, they’re not going to be paying full attention to the training and will struggle during competition.

What we see is a lack of confidence around redevelopment by people who aren’t active, meaning if you’re not active in developing your career, anxiety will come into the equation which is likely to impact performance.

There is no definitive data, but there was research conducted by Professor David Lavenly in the National Rugby League (NRL) that indicated at the very least, developing alternative career options outside of sport did no harm and had some benefits to performance on the field.

A significant number of current athletes think that they will leave on their own terms and expect it to fade away and resolve itself. The importance is not to get caught out by reality when you least expect it, so creating good habits and breaking down the ‘why’ factor travels a long way.

Q: Looking back over your journey so far, what has made you most proud about helping athletes after retirement?
A: The greatest satisfaction is witnessing a client have breakthrough moments of clarity when they manage to reconnect the dots of their careers in a way that makes new sense and feel things clicking into place, like a careers chiropractor! 

Another element I really enjoy is when I discover insights that I feel will be useful for many people. Making the link between sport and addiction in my research feels like a breakthrough moment that can add a valuable contribution to improving athlete transition experiences. This series of interviews will have plenty of other valuable insight for the readers to get their own mini breakthrough moments.

Q: What are your goals and aspirations in this field for the future?
A: Currently, I’m seeking to evolve my coaching journey across three phases, based on serving the audience through different channels: Firstly working with almost random individuals self-funding themselves. Secondly, working with clients through clubs and associations who are at least partly funded by their sports. A third phase would be when athlete career coaching support is something supported and done by those athletes who are fortunate enough to have successful careers.

I’ve made this available now through the buddy system in which any client who pays 50% extra can gift the same level of support they get to another athlete, either someone of their choice or an anonymous, deserving case. I think developing the last phase is important because it’s the most sustainable model that also allows athletes to give back to one another. 

That’s my long-term vision. However, I try to focus on each day as it comes and do the next right thing.

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