This month, Game Plan celebrates its ten year anniversary. Ten years feels like yesterday. I was in our basement in Chatham, NJ. The ceiling was so low I couldn’t stand up straight. My son, Quinn, was just born and Julie was busy keeping her two boys in line. Ten years later, Quinn has grown a bit while Julie is busier than ever keeping her boys in line. Marrying out of my league doesn’t come close to describing the jackpot I hit with Julie. In fact, the only thing close are my parents.
I’m a full fledged “Damn Yankee” now (a Yankee who moves south and sticks around!) and I’ve traded the basement for an office, where I’m fortunate to share with the most wonderful colleagues. They’re rockstars in every sense.
Since day one, I’ve been lucky to have customers, advisors, investors and friends support me. In fact, as I write this and think of each you, so many are all of the above.
Good and bad, every day feels like I’ve learned something new. One step at a time, we have grown Game Plan. The one constant, I am most proud of our mission and the work we do to guide athletes in their journey.
For us at Game Plan, the journey of the athlete is a special experience. It’s clearly not for everyone, but for those that have lived it, you know the profound impact it has on you. In a sense, most of us can’t remember not being an athlete—it becomes our identity. I think it’s the primary reason so many athletes who’ve gone through the journey want to give back to those playing now. The experience is special and you want others to experience, struggle, fail, develop and grow too.
We have learned too many great lessons to list here so I’ve boiled it down to ten athlete development lessons we’ve learned working alongside the best minds in the business.
One: The foundation of a great athletic experience is the journey.
The most successful athletics organizations have a keen understanding of their athlete’s experience and pull together every aspect of their organization in an effort to enhance the athlete’s journey. From ticket sales, sports performance to athlete development, each individual in the organization clearly understands the role they play and how they impact the journey of the athlete.
Two: The journey is understood and managed from the top down.
The best of the best athletic organizations have gone the extra mile to design systems, compensation, job responsibilities and branding to maximize the journey of the athlete. Athlete development is part of the larger brand of the athletics organization – and in a growing number of instances, it is the brand. In college athletics, athlete development impacts recruiting, alumni development and sponsorship. In professional athletics, it impacts labor relations, player performance and fan engagement. The best athlete development professionals embrace the new focus on athlete development to engage more stakeholders, gain mindshare and resources.
Three: Meet athletes where they are.
Two critical takeaways found in successful athletics organizations. First, organizations embrace a blended model of development. This model is led with in-person engagement rooted deeply by relationships based on character, trust and credibility. These in-person relationships are complemented through the use of technology to expand the reach of the athlete development team / professional and create comprehensive development opportunities for athletes. Second, the best athletics organizations know where the athlete is in their journey and meet them there. The best education and development resources reach and aid the athlete in their ‘here and now.’ And for an athlete, ‘the here and now’ is all they know and care about.
Four: Understand the journey – back to front.
The best athlete development professionals know the athlete lives in the present and trust the journey as a process. These professionals take a comprehensive view on the development of an athlete knowing certain lessons are building blocks for the future of the athlete, particularly as they transition away from sport. “Big tent” sessions are wonderful and inspire emotion and urgency but the journey is long and challenging. Athletes are looking for a sherpa to guide them through the long haul.
Five: As KPIs become the new norm, do not overlook participation.
There is no lack for outstanding presentations in the industry, and it makes perfect sense. In the past, the presentation and even the presenter, were the primary aspects of program evaluations. Over the past two years, athlete participation has become the clear challenge. Regardless of how innovative, engaging or powerful the presentation is, if athletes don’t participate, the opportunity is lost. The strategic athlete development professional streamlines their programming to enhance participation, and improve engagement. It sounds too simple, but it is the most powerful KPI—participation.
Six: Athletes are unique.
Great athletics organizations first seek to understand then to be understood. It’s convenient to label athletes with broad contextual terms like “great teammates” and “hard workers” but the reality is athletes are individuals with their own unique identities. These identities have been forged from intense personal experiences (on and off the field), which make each athlete’s interests, goals and desires unique to them as well. To truly reach the person, understand the athlete as a unique individual.
Seven: Career development is not a transaction.
When I started Game Plan ten years ago, our first customers were employers—i-banks, consultants, finance—all highly desirable jobs. Over the course of twelve months, athletes did not apply for jobs. The athlete moves through a journey with many transitions. Do not treat career development as a transaction—it simply does not work. Only by guiding an athlete through their journey will you lead the athlete to a successful career.
Eight: Compliance, Title IX and other required forms of required education represent new opportunities.
Certain subject matter is required to be addressed with athletes. These subjects include sexual violence prevention, academic misconduct, and coming soon, ethics and gambling. Innovative athletics organizations turn these required educational situations into so much more than a ‘check the box’ compliance process. Great athletics organizations see opportunities in their ‘requirements.’ In the past 6 months, we have seen how customers connect healthy relationship education with career development. As an example, employers require workplace conduct training, which is their form of compliance education. Athletics organizations are taking this required opportunity to connect healthy relationships education to career development—and this investment in healthy relationships as an athlete is a differentiator in the eye of a prospective employer. Compliance based education is not just a requirement, it’s an opportunity.
Nine: Platform fatigue is real.
Compliance, sports performance, operations, academics and athlete development – athletics organizations live in silos. Over the years, these silos have led to a proliferation of technology, often leading the athlete to manage multiple software programs to manage their day. Athletics organizations, and their technology partners, are moving to streamline this. The results will impact the athlete athlete user experience and the organizational bottom line. Athletics organizations who seek partnerships with technology providers will come out light years ahead here.
Ten: Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it is.
Over the past several years, college football programs have hired player development coaches. Basketball was right behind them. Baseball and soccer followed. Professional sports leagues and clubs have gone from ‘zero resources’ to significant investments into infrastructure for athlete development. Athlete development is now being provided to elite and competitive high school athletes. At a collegiate and professional level, athlete development is no longer a ‘nice to have’ – it’s being benchmarked competitively and a requirement.
Here’s to today…
So as I think about the last ten years, I am reminded of what Mother Teresa famously said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not come. We have only today.” So as awesome as it is to think about the past ten years and what the next ten can bring, I love where we are today.