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How holistic development can help you thrive

We hear a lot about how important it is for sports stars to have a plan B for their lives off the field. While training for the Olympics or playing for a top team, it’s a good idea to also be studying and preparing for the future.

For the rest of us, no matter our situations, there’s a lot to be learned from this wisdom.

If you’re studying towards a particular career, what will you do if you realise down the track that it doesn’t suit you like you expected? If you’re in Year 12 aiming to get into a particular course, what will you do if your ATAR is lower than you’d hoped?

‘Look up, see what else is going on, and maybe there might be another opportunity coming your way,’ advises Dr Tim Chambers, a lecturer in Deakin’s School of Psychology who has worked with athletes on enhancing their holistic development.

As Dr Chambers explains, keeping your options open and making sure you’re developing yourself holistically is an important way to prepare for the unexpected. For sportspeople, it may help avoid the huge crash and crisis than can happen when an injury stifles their careers.

For the rest of us, it’s much the same, whether our plans change due to something like a global pandemic or simply a shift in circumstances.

What is holistic development?

As Dr Chambers explains, holistic development is about developing multiple sides of yourself at the same time, with the aim of becoming a well-rounded person who can find long-term fulfilment.

‘We have lots of evidence to support what we’d call “the development of multiple identities” – having a social identity, an academic identity, a personal identity, and so on,’ he says.

Holistic development is often used in a sporting context, but anyone can benefit, whether your main goal is sporting, academic, career or otherwise. Dr Chambers explains how he used it when working with athletes to develop their off-field skills.

‘We see in sport that when someone focuses extremely on just one identity, and then something happens to undermine that, they can feel lost,’ he explains. ‘My role was to ask, “OK, so you can run laps and throw a ball well, but what else can you do off-field? What else are you interested in?” Really trying to develop the person as a whole.’

What we know from sport

‘We know the problems of focusing on your sporting career exclusively at the risk of everything else, and it takes an injury or deselection and that’s it, you’re done,’ Dr Chambers says.

Because of this issue, a lot of work in recent years has gone into enhancing athlete personal development to better prepare themselves for a smooth transition into a post-sporting career. Institutions like the Australian Institute of Sport have whole wellbeing teams dedicated to this side of athlete development.

‘There’s a lot of great research that comes out of Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, and a little bit in Australia that talks to this holistic development,’ Dr Chambers explains. ‘You can have your academic focus, but also focus on what are the things you’d like to do after your athletic career. We call it a dual-career approach. It could be anything from working in real estate or the construction industry to becoming a medical practitioner.’

It takes real motivation to work towards a plan B while training for the Olympics or keeping up an AFL career though, Dr Chambers points out.

‘There is no definitive evidence that says athletes who have a career outside of sport, this idea of a dual-career, do better on the field. But athletes who experience that holistic balance between sport and life in general, they often report better mental health, they often report feeling more in-control of their lives.’

Using holistic development for any career goal

If you’re striving towards a particular career goal, it’s easy to develop tunnel vision. Maybe you’re working towards becoming a doctor working in a particular hospital. Maybe you’re studying journalism with the goal to score a job on TV. Or you might believe your destiny is to rise to become a manager or director within your chosen field.

While having a single focus is helpful to keep you motivated, there are also huge benefits to keeping an open mind. This is something Dr Chambers particularly encourages in his psychology students.

Becoming a clinical psychologist starts with at least four years of undergraduate study. Some students get to the end of this degree and realise clinical psychology doesn’t suit them the way they expected.

‘It’s not uncommon for students to go, “I don’t like psychology; I want to become a counsellor or do social work,”’ Dr Chambers says.

That’s why he always advises students to do some volunteer work to develop transferable skills and get a ‘taste of the real world’ along the way.

‘Or go and talk to people who are in the field – that way it’s not unknown to you at the very end,’ he suggests.

‘It can be a long pathway towards your goal. Sometimes it’s OK to lift your head up, look around a bit more and go, “What else can I do at the same time?”

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Dr Tim Chambers
Dr Tim Chambers


School of Psychology,

Deakin University

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