Integrative Approaches to Engage Student-Athletes in Career Development

By Kathleen Mannheimer

Student-athletes commonly struggle with unique issues regarding career development and expanding their athletic identities to include a full range of possibilities.  With the recognized phenomena of identity foreclosure, athletic identity, and career maturity (Murphy, Petitpas & Brewer, 1996) as challenges, and the unique population of Division 1 varsity athletes at Princeton University (20 percent of undergraduates in 37 teams), I advocated for the creation of my position as a dedicated career counselor for Athletics. In this role, I implement multi-dimensional approaches to engage student-athletes in career exploration and progress beyond the identity foreclosure stage (Shurts and Shoffner, 2004) by applying Learning Theory of Career Counseling (Krumboltz, 1996).


Focusing on high school recruits through seniors, I collaborate with coaches, captains, and athletic administrators as their career “coach” partner, with team-specific alumni mentors for student networking and with employers for team access. A large and interactive group career and life vision workshop, followed by individual counseling, forms the foundation for learning. Both are designed to engage students in self-reflection to personally define a life with meaning and purpose.  Students are encouraged to set goals that will use their undergraduate experience as an environment to challenge assumptions, test hypotheses, set learning goals for inside and outside of the classroom, and expand their view of themselves and their futures beyond their sport. This approach aligns with our university-wide value of “service to humanity,” meaningful work, and our mission focused on designing both a career and life vision (Sanghvi and Kubu, 2017).


We build job search competencies and learning opportunities by partnering with athletic coaches to incorporate career events into their practice schedules. Since almost 50% of the athletic teams have alumni mentor or “Athletics Friends” groups, we have been able to engage with them to enhance student learning about career fields and positions. We have also offered externship experiences – called Princeternships – and alumni site visits during times when most athletes are not “in season.” Accessing non-athletic alumni through Career Services and participating in career field-specific networking events enhances learning. Finally, intentionally coordinating employer information sessions and career workshops at non-practice times, and promoting them through targeted newsletters, provides important learning support.


In addition to implementing the integrative approaches above, I have included strategies that I have used to support the identity expansion of student-athletes, which you may find helpful as you develop or expand your respective student-athlete counseling programs.


Key Outreach Strategies for Athletic Teams and Coaches

  • Connect with athletic administration to gain their advice, buy-in and support for your initiatives, and update them regularly.

  • Participate in athletic administration events, coaches’ meetings and team celebrations to build personal connections, learn about the unique context of each team and how to best meet the team’s needs.

  • Coordinate with the coaches to meet with their teams at their practice locations.

  • Treat the coaches as your allies; they also want their athletes to attain the career goals that align with their interests.

  • Attend athletic events whenever you can to show your support.

  • Use social media to broadcast interactions with the teams, using both their hashtags and your career services hashtag.


Creating Value for Career and Employer Events

  • Hold career services and athlete-specific employer recruiting events at times that work for their schedules – breakfast, late nights, dinner time with food. Educate employers and your own career services staff about the unique schedules and demands of athletic teams.

  • Offer to participate in presentations and meetings with recruits and their families. This creates goodwill, demonstrates the focus on student-athletes and their career development, and promotes thinking about life after college for athletes and their families.

  • Connect with alumni of each team and determine available resources, which could range from advice to employer connections.

  • Create team events incorporating alumni offering advice about entry points into their career fields, graduate school, and skills practice (interviewing, networking).   

  • Advocate for student-athletes within your university, updating your peers about the student-athlete experience.


Key Tips for One-on-One Counseling

  • Help first and second-year students articulate the skills gained through high school leadership and coaching roles, as their work experiences may be limited due to athletic commitments.

  • Assist students to articulate the transferable skills they are building through their student-athlete experience and to create their personal brand for the job search process.

  • Inquire how their season is going and how they feel physically; follow the news on their team.

  • Incorporate white-boarding experiences into sessions; engage students to stand and write on a wall-size board their skills, values, interests, hypotheses, and next steps as a visual they can photograph and retain.

  • Co-create and set learning opportunities to productively use team alumni, employers and other resources.

  • Discuss varied career fields – their interests are diverse and often not related to sports.

  • Encourage participation in employer site visits or shadowing experiences for career exploration.

  • Email student-athletes regularly with customized newsletters about relevant programs, positions and other career information.

  • Explore scheduling counseling sessions at convenient times and alternate campus locations.   


Utilizing the strategies outlined above can optimize your impact on engaging student-athletes in their career development.  However, all of us may encounter ongoing challenges of student availability and motivation, coach involvement and integration, and athletic administration and university support for our initiatives. Implementing incremental steps in this process and building team-by-team can help you to gain maximum traction in your efforts.  




Krumboltz, J. D.  (1996). A learning theory of career counseling.  In M. L. Savickas & W. B. Walsh (Eds.), Handbook of career counseling theory and practice (pp. 55-80), Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.


Martens, M. P. & Lee, F. K. (1998). Promoting life-career development in the student-athlete: How can career centers help?  Journal of Career Development, 25(2), 123-134.


Murphy, G. M., Petitpas, A. J, & Brewer, B. W. (1996). Identity foreclosure, athletic identity, and career maturity in intercollegiate athletes. The Sport Psychologist, 10, 239-246.


Sanghvi, P., & Kubu, E. (2017, May 1). Reimagining Career Services. Retrieved from http://www.naceweb.org/career-development/organizational-structure/reimagining-career-services/


Shurts, W. M., and M. F., Shoffner. (2004).  Providing career counseling for collegiate student-athletes: A learning theory approach. Journal of Career Development, 31, 95-109.  


Kathleen MannheimerKathleen L. Mannheimer, M.A., Senior Career Adviser, Athletics, at Princeton University, advocated for the creation of her role in 2014 to develop more targeted outreach and career counseling for Division 1 Varsity student-athletes.  With over 15 years in Career Services, she has held several other roles, including oversight of the counseling and career education for the office, as well as the role of Graduate Student Career Counselor.  Her background spans a wide range of industries and roles prior to higher education, including nonprofit leadership, outplacement counseling, and corporate human resources management with organizations including General Electric, Manchester Partners International, and a Xerox insurance company.  She has a Master’s degree in Counseling, a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Dickinson College, and presented on her work with student-athletes at the NCDA Conference in 2016. Contact: kmann@princeton.edu


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Brian Montalvo   on Wednesday 08/02/2017 at 01:11 PM

Great article! I have shared it with my staff and athletic department. :)

Larry Kamguia   on Wednesday 08/02/2017 at 02:48 PM

Great article Kathleen! Thank you for sharing your expertise and best practices with the career advising community!

Scott Borden   on Thursday 08/03/2017 at 10:56 AM

Great article, Kathleen! Informative, interesting and valuable.

Pamela Cohen   on Sunday 08/06/2017 at 04:29 PM

An insightful and informative article highlighting the power of campus collaboration to support the unique educational and career development experiences of student-athletes. Keep up the good work!

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.