Transitioning from sport to another career is a tricky business for athletes. After all, if you have been an elite athlete until you are in your late twenties or early thirties, that will have been your sole focus for more than half your life – certainly all your adult life.
And athletes are notoriously single-minded. They have to be. In the cut-throat environment of elite sport, there is no room for taking a time-out or having a career break.
So how do athletes find, enter and make a success in a second career? For most of us, being successful in one sphere of the working world is tough enough, but to be a success twice over? That is a big ask.
We spoke to three former international hockey players, all of who have gone on to enjoy successful careers that are within the hockey world but removed from the action on the pitch.
Mercedes Margalot (Argentina)
Mercedes Margalot is a familiar face to legions of Las Leonas supporters. She is a hockey legend who competed in three Olympic Games, two World Cups, four Champions Trophies and three Pan American Games. Among the medal haul is Olympic silver (Sydney 2000), Olympic bronze (Athens 2004, Beijing 2008), World Cup gold (Perth 2002), World Cup bronze (Madrid 2006). She has two Champions Trophy gold medals (2001 and 2008), plus a silver and bronze from the intervening editions. Margalot was part of a squad that remained unbeaten in the Pan American Games!
Now, Margalot remains the face of hockey but from a presenting point of view. She works as a sports journalist, specializing in hockey, for ESPN Sport Centre – a position she reached after gaining valuable experience in radio.
“After many years of being a sports woman, I had contacts within sports journalism,” she explains. “So, after the Beijing Olympics, I contacted them and started to work in radio. After a few years I jumped into television presenting.”
Before she became an elite athlete, Margalot had ambitions to be a journalist but these were put aside as her hockey career began to blossom. It was an ambition that became buried as she was encouraged to follow in her mother’s footsteps by studying to be a dentist.
While pursuing an international hockey career, Margalot also passed her dentistry exams and, indeed, started practicing as a dentist. She soon realized however that treating people’s dental issues wasn’t for her.
The sporting arena was Margalot’s natural domain and she has made the most of both her sporting knowledge – which is very transferable from one sport to another – and the contacts she still has within hockey.
“Everything I experienced during so many years of playing hockey has fed into my knowledge of sport,’ she says. “I have authority and authenticity when I am working as a journalist thanks to my own experience of elite sport.”
Ali Lee (Canada)
Another player who has used all her contacts and sporting knowledge to carve out a career is Canada’s Ali Lee.
“My current role is as Communications Officer for Vikes Athletics and Recreation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada,” says the former international defender.
“I’m in charge of a lot of the department's internal and external communications, from our digital assets – website, social media and digital marketing – to the voice and tone in any speech, presentation or campaign. I also manage the varsity sports coverage from webcasting, to live stats, post-game recaps, photography and media relations. It's a big portfolio but mostly I feel like I'm in the middle of all of our events.”
It’s a role that involves long hours but, says Lee: “Every now and then I get a thank you e-mail or phone call from an athlete or parent saying that the story I wrote captured the moment brilliantly. Or the webcast I managed allowed grandma across the country to watch and see them win. Those are the moments that matter the most to me.”
Lee took the step from player to communicator via a degree in… biochemistry. She says her swerve from science into communications happened during her international career as she gained new experiences.
“At the time, there wasn't a strong website presence that featured the national team athletes. When on tour or in competitions I used our match video clips and made highlight videos in iMovie and interviewed my team mates after games to put together game recap videos for YouTube. I would send these back home so my family, who was never able to see me compete in a game that wasn't in my home town, could feel a part of the experience.”
Lee’s interest in a career in communications was probably cemented during the lead-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
“Ahead of the Commonwealth Games we had to make a big fundraising push so, with the help of one of my teammates' dad, we made a website to start campaigning about our team. I updated it along the way and the whole process taught me many skills from photography to video editing to website updating and social media.
When she retired from the international team, Lee was the perfect fit for a multimedia position in the athletics department of the university she had attended. Soon her hard work led her to a position as lead of communications in the athletics department.
Lee’s own experiences as a player have driven the way she operates: “I like to write about not just the people who score goals or goalies that make saves. I talk about that momentum-changing tackle in midfield or that one pass that led, a few moves later, to the goal. My appreciation for every moment and every person involved in bringing a team or athlete to success is always at the forefront of my mind.”
Every day is a learning experience. “As an athlete I got to meet all the local media in my hometown and now I work with them regularly to cover the athletes at my university. That relationship has also opened doors for me to learn, including getting writing tips from some of the city's best sports journalists, press conference experience and I even got to write news for a teleprompter and visit the studio when the broadcaster read my script at CTV in Vancouver.”
Lee says she had no plans to end up in communications. In fact, she laughs: “I think it chose me a bit since social and digital media evolved right around the time that I was getting in to the work world.”
Max Caldas (Argentina)
A career in coaching was always on the cards for Max Caldas, although no-one would have foreseen just how successful the former Argentina men’s international would be.
Olympic gold and World Cup gold with the Netherlands women’s team in 2012 and 2014 respectively, and two EuroHockey Championship gold medals and a silver at the 2018 Odisha World Cup with the Dutch men’s team are a good return on a nine year tenure with the KNHB (the Netherlands Hockey governing body).
Caldas has also been voted FIH Coach of the Year twice, in 2014 and 2017. He shared the latter honor with Belgium head coach Shane McLeod.
“I have always enjoyed coaching, right from a young age,” says Caldas. “It was a means of getting pocket money when I was young and it meant I didn’t have to ask my parents for money.
“But also, I grew up playing hockey at Club Ciudad de Buenos Aires where it was normal behavior to help out in your club with coaching as well as playing.”
For Caldas, that meant coaching younger players when he was a mere 17-year-old himself. He used to work alongside the members of the first team or the Argentina national squad to deliver coaching at the club.
That early coaching experience as a youngster set the seeds for a coaching career, so much so that when he was reaching the end of his playing days, Caldas was already seeing the game “as a coach, rather than as a player”.
Since he retired from playing, Caldas has coached at every level possible, from youth teams, club teams and representative teams to national teams. He has seen a lot of change in that time.
“There have been huge strides towards a more inclusive approach. This applies to the relationship coaching staff have with players and the way now that senior players welcome and mentor the younger players.”
Caldas does voice caution, however, at the demands placed on the modern international player. He says players must seek a balance in their lives and find time among training and playing for friends, family and building a career for when the hockey playing stops.
When it comes to why he enjoys coaching so much, Caldas oozes enthusiasm: “It presents the chance to work with the person behind the athlete, the chance to grow together with your players and staff, the chance to reinvent myself as we go along, learning something every day.
“It is certainly not a simple case of winning versus losing. That is not what our role is. That is just a little part of it. It can sometimes consume you and take temporary control of your journey but it never should.
“For me, if there is a downside to this job, then it is disappointing players. Not picking them, for example. Or not always being who you really are. Sometimes you have to put on a persona but I like to present the real me to everyone, at all times.”
While a player, Caldas was already thinking like a coach. Now, in a coaching role, he still retains the ability to think like a player. However, it is not something that he is comfortable with. “As a former player, you are able to sometimes put yourself in the players’ shoes, having been through something similar. But I think you should think as a coach when you are a coach. The player in you has to make way.”
Caldas laughs as he recalls his early perceptions of what it meant to be a head coach: “I thought it was easy. I always had this idea in my mind that coaches had it easy. Players run and work hard and coaches just watch the video.”
That early illusion was blown away when Caldas went to his first tournament as assistant coach to the Netherlands U21 men’s team in 2001. “I came back and I was sick for a week, I was just worn out.
“It is a different way to sapping your energy. How to find time for yourself every day; how you can evolve, not just for yourself but for your players too. You have to take a finely balanced line between helping and supporting each player but also knowing when to push them, to drive them forwards.”
“And”, he adds with startling humbleness and honesty, “you have to have the ability to be open-minded. Not to just believe in one thing, not to think ‘this is the only way’, but retain the ability to gain new knowledge, explore new ways and learn from everything and everyone. I work at developing my coaching every day. I have never felt that I am there, or indeed that I am any good at it.”