New Landscape Makes Way for New Opportunities to Engage Student-Athletes

By Valerie Ayer and Matt Darby

Career specialists encounter unique needs and opportunities when they assist student-athletes. The students’ priorities are split between their role as students and athletes (Menke, 2015). Time constraints often prevent them from using the services offered by offices across campus. Yet, transformative changes are coming to college athletics, and career centers will play an integral role as post-secondary institutions respond.

Compensation changes will challenge the traditional definition of amateur sport and have a significant impact on collegiate athletics. For example, some states passed legislation (Brown, 2021) allowing student-athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness. Consequently, the National Collegiate Athletics Association instituted their own policy (Brutland, 2021). Even the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, handing down a ruling that criticized the NCAA’s business model (Liptak & Blinder, 2021). Colleges and universities are already trying to prepare their student-athletes for this new reality, creating curricula around finance, social media marketing, and entrepreneurship (Bromberg, 2021). While there are many unknowns in the shadows of a global pandemic, new opportunities are available for student-athlete development and career engagement.

Name, image, and likeness changes open the door to new approaches to student-athlete development. A holistic approach also continues to be a priority for athletic departments. This approach attends to the whole person, not only addressing academic and physical needs but the social-emotional well-being, financial and business interests of the student-athletes. The holistic approach offers opportunities for multi-departmental collaborations to design programming. In today's new environment, topics like mental health, social-justice, personal branding/marketing, and entrepreneurship need attention to educate or protect student-athletes. Career services departments could be welcomed additions to the interdepartmental team.

To effectively engage with student-athletes, career services will need to implement specific strategies, such as the following:

Generate Buy-In

Get buy-in from athletic department influencers. Building alliances with key staff is a critical step. If coaches see the value in the program, they will require their student-athletes’ participation. Academic support providers, assistant coaches, and training staff who regularly interact with the student-athlete can reinforce the importance of career programming as well. Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members are another ally that can influence the general student-athlete population. This student leadership group hosts diverse events and provides input on student programming. As career services host events, they can earn support from coaches by communicating that their programming will be working with, not against, their respective seasonal schedules and off-season workouts.

Advance Trust within Team Subculture

Each sport has its own subculture. This occurs for many reasons: the number of players on a team, professional opportunities, or simply coaching philosophy. Career services offices may want to take into consideration some of these factors and strategize on ways to best schedule programming. It is important to get feedback from coaches and participants alike regarding the needs, likes, and value-systems of each team or sport. These pre-programming talks will also help build the trust needed for successful programming.

As with any student, trust is individual and yet can be colored by the sub-culture within each sport. Some sports have a much tighter network of those trusted allies, making it imperative for career specialists to get buy-in from the influencers in the student-athletes’ lives first. This is predicated on good relationships with influencers like coaches, trainers, assistants, academic support, and student leaders of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Trust may not come immediately for some student-athletes. Even though they may not respond early in the process, they are observing how career specialists interact with other athletes, which can pay off eventually.

Stay Visible: Location, Location, Location

Having a presence in the athletic department can build familiarity and open the door to a conversation. Inquire to see if it is possible for your staff to provide career counseling in the athletic department a few times a week/month. Could a virtual event fit the needs of the student-athletes and career services? As student-athletes’ daily calendars get tighter every year, the goal is for career services to be prioritized conveniently without impinging on academic and sport schedules. Thus, collaborations between career services and the athletic community could result in increased interest, participation, and student success.

Prepare for Life After Athletics

Only a small percentage of collegiate student-athletes make a professional sport roster (NCAA 2021). For those that are truly headed to the pros or are adamant that they will make it, there is tremendous value in the services career specialists provide. It is pivotal for student-athletes to understand the importance of interview preparation. Student-athletes are competitors and tend to do whatever it takes to make themselves more appealing to scouts. Empowering student-athletes with assessment results can improve their ability to sell on and off-the-field/court attributes and heighten awareness of what makes them unique, leading to successful interviews.

When engaging students in career exploration or planning, word choice is paramount. For example, utilizing the terminology of parallel planning (Johnson, 2015) instead of “plan B” provides a supportive, equal framework for exploration of both professional sports and alternative careers. Active exploration is particularly important since so many athletes either have or had a foreclosed identity as noted by Menke (2015). Foreclosed identity is marked by a strong commitment to a particular career without essential career exploration (Gore et al., 2015). The foreclosed identity can continue to shape their career progression negatively, setting them behind their peers. Taking the time to “run the parallel path” now will ease the transition whenever it comes.

Photo By Andres Jasso On Unsplash


Engaging the student-athlete with best practices supports universities' holistic programming. The advantage of holistic programming is that it aims to address all facets of the human experience, including finding a suitable, enjoyable career. Some careers involve Name, Image and Likeness opportunities, and for some student-athletes these have already led to lucrative endorsement deals (Lyles, 2021). Career services specialists know these deals can challenge already established career and education goals, therefore changing the trajectory of student-athletes’ career paths. The expertise of career specialists could prove to be even more vital as student-athletes sort through short and long-term professional priorities, along with personal and professional values. This could be a tremendous opportunity to engage student-athletes eager to be coached with new skills, knowledge, and strategies that prepare them for success today and in the future.



Brown, A. (2021, May 28). With no national standard, states scramble to allow college athlete endorsements. Pew Trusts. https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/05/28/with-no-national-standard-states-scramble-to-allow-college-athlete-endorsements

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NCAA. (2021). Estimated probability of competing in professional athletics. National Collegiate Athletics Association. https://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/estimated-probability-competing-professional-athletics



Valerie AyerValerie Ayer, CMCS, is a career and education advisor at AthLife Inc. She has spent the majority of her 25-year career advising elite athletes in the college, professional and post-professional arenas. She completed the Facilitating Career Development training and earned the NCDA Certified Master Career Services credential. She can be reached at val@athlife.com



Matt DarbyMatt Darby, CCSP, is a career and education advisor at AthLife Inc. A six-year NFL veteran, he has enjoyed the last seven years working in career development in the public and private sectors. He has completed the Facilitating Career Development training and earned the NCDA Certified Career Services Professional credential. He can be reached at matt@athlife.com  

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