Wellbeing Science Institute

The 3 Global Trends in Elite Sport

I was recently asked by a senior executive of a globally renowned sporting code about the trends I am seeing in elite sport from the athlete’s perspective. My response was that there are three trends that are likely to shape the next decade.

1. Athlete Activism & Purpose-centric Entrepreneurship

High profile athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, & Martina Navratilova have set an incredibly high benchmark for athlete activism on social justice and equal rights. 

But more recently athletes such as Megan Rapinoe, Raheem Sterling, Mesut Ozil, Marcus Rashford, Lewis Hamilton and Ada Hegerberg, have demonstrated the power of the modern athlete voice and the willingness of athletes to stand up not only for themselves and their beliefs but for the issues that matter to them in society.

Some high profile athletes are willing to speak out even when it can be detrimental to their careers.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and later the Wimbledon tournament in 2021 after facing criticism for refusing to participate in post-match press conferences due to concerns about her mental health. Bubba Wallace, the NASCAR driver, faced backlash and even received death threats after he successfully pushed for the Confederate flag to be banned from NASCAR events. Megan Rapinoe, US football player faced criticism from some fans and politicians for kneeling during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial injustice. 

Other high-profile athletes and former athletes are also using their voice to fund, engage and mobilise people into causes they believe in. Examples include Lebron James (education), Lionel Messi (childhood health & wellbeing), Nadia Comaneci (disadvantaged children), Mo Farah (education and healthcare) & Christian Kroll (tech & environmentalism). 

One things is certain, elite athletes are growing more confident and more willing to use their platform to speak out on issues that matter to them and this is inspiring many of their peers to do the same. The smart sporting organisations not only listen to their athletes’ views but work out intelligent ways to support their athletes in meaningful ways that make sense for both parties.

2. Organisations Get Serious About Athlete Wellbeing 

Most sporting organisation and franchises around the world pay lip service to genuine athlete wellbeing and their approaches can at best be described as window dressing. 

To find out whether an organisation’s approach is lip service or not, only three simple questions need to asked. The first is “What is the ratio of athletes to the wellbeing specialist?” (<30 pp should be the answer). The second is ” How many hours does the person spend per season in front of the playing group and 1:1 per season?” (min 20 hrs +4-6 hours per season) And finally, “What training in athlete wellbeing does the person/people responsible have?” (Qualification in a recognised multidisciplinary athlete-centric wellbeing course should be mandatory).

Sporting Organisations are also recognising that if they don’t provide the high-quality, wellbeing services for elite athletes, then athletes will find and fund the services themselves. Thereby creating a brand and retention problem for the organisations and opportunities for competitors.

At the same time sporting organisations across the globe are being dragged kicking and screaming to the table to improve their governance, cultures and leadership to stamp out the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of elite athletes. Tragically, the stories keep coming despite decades of promises of change. 

Real change happens when:

  • there is a clearly defined and documented Wellbeing Strategy for the organisation
  • there is a clear organisational structure and the roles for performance psychologists, clinical psychologists, athlete care, development managers and wellbeing are clearly scoped and articulated
  • wellbeing training is mandatory and assessable in coach and administrator qualifications and on-boarding 
  • only qualified and capable people are placed into athlete wellbeing roles
  • time is ring-fenced for athletes’ wellbeing and education and is delivered by qualified professionals

3. The Rise of Women’s Sport

The increasing visibility of leading female administrators such Dame Katherine Grainger (Chair of UK Sport & IOC), Baroness Sue Campbell (Women’s football – FA UK), Florence Hardouin (French Football Federation), Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria (President Badminton World Federation) Tracey Gaudry (Australian Football League), and Nita Ambani (Indian Super League) are not only creating role models for future generations, but transforming women’s sport to ensure appropriate visibility, funding, infrastructure, pathways and opportunities are provided to female athletes and administrators. 

While equality with male elite sport funding is a long way off for women’s sport, the commercial opportunities for astute organisations are rising at a rapid rate. Not least because those who follow female sport are willing to spend to consume the product. 

International interest in women’s football, cricket, basketball, netball, athletics, rugby league, rugby sevens and tennis are indicating that mainstream broadcasting deals and sponsorship opportunities will only grow.

Fan interest and broadcast deals will ensure a greater number of professional female athletes are able to make their athletic career their single income focus. It will also provide female athletes with greater opportunities when transitioning into coaching, administration, broadcasting, media and greater leverage into other areas of related career interest.

In summary, female sport has a long way to go to achieve equality with male sport but it is on a massive growth curve and the momentum is unstoppable. One only needs to look at the rise of English women’s football to see the evidence.