How to get the best of both: combining elite sport with higher education

Nitin Mishra, Former Football Scholarship Athlete, Currently Senior Consultant at IBM

My Background

I was always a player who stood out at school and at local club level and as a schoolboy, I had my first taste of being involved in a professional club, with extended trials at both Aston Villa and Notts County FC. Unfortunately things didn’t work out at either club, but shortly after I signed a contract at Nottingham Forest, where I spent just under 5 years at my hometown club. I was then released during a big change in the football club’s hierarchy and management staff.

After this period I had brief spells at Sheffield United, Derby County and Burton Albion youth setups, but I made the decision to join non-league club Ilkeston Town where I signed for two years, on top of signing as a scholarship athlete at the University of Birmingham, studying towards a degree in International Business with Spanish whilst training and competing full time.

Signing my first contract with Nottingham Forest was a big deal for me and my family. I am a Nottingham boy, my older brother had been with the club for a number of years, and the club was round the corner from where I grew up, so it was a special feeling. Being part of England Schools training camps at a young age were also experiences I am proud of. In addition, my time at Ilkeston Town was where I experienced some moments I am proud of. At a young age I was given the opportunity to get first team experience against the likes of Chelsea, Leicester City and Blackpool during pre-season.

The Decision to Combine elite-sport & higher education

In my case I don’t think it’s a question of quitting, retiring or stopping – it was more a decision to combine elite-sport with higher education, to ensure I was giving myself the best possible platform to be successful later down the line. I was bright at school and have always appreciated the value that a good educational background can give you and the need for backup plans – so for me it was a case of deciding how to get the best of both – continuing within elite sport whilst building a solid foundation academically. This is something that growing up became the norm, having combined full-time sport with education from a young age.

My brothers journey within sport was also a big influence – his professional football career was cut short through injury at 20, so I experienced first-hand that careers can be snatched away from you. Compared to other industries, an athletes’ career span is much shorter. Thanks to my family and support network around me, I’ve always been conscious about preparing for scenarios outside of sport and the inevitable transition that everyone faces – preparing early simply helps you get ahead and thrive when that time comes.

My Transition outside of elite-sport into new career

My first experience outside of elite-sport was during an internship with IBM – this was pivotal for me as it was a great learning curve in understanding how the transferable skills I’ve developed in sport can actually be really valuable within organisations such as:

  • Leadership
  • Time Management
  • Discipline
  • Resilience
  • The ability to deal with feedback/criticism

These are all part of an athletes DNA/ make-up, and they are behaviours/skills that for me have derived from sport, yet are still so relevant to be successful in a business setting.

Following the internship, I returned to IBM on a 2-year graduate-scheme which I have completed, and am now progressing through the stages of my career in consulting.

Elements that helped my Transition:

First and foremost I’ve got a really supportive network – family, friends and mentors, all who have provided me with honest advice and support when making decisions about my career.

I think a combination of having a strong support network, along with a genuine willingness to learn and be open to change is key.

I’ve been involved in a number of initiatives supporting elite-athletes through career transition. I also had a great support system at the University of Birmingham Hi-Performance Centre that proved really valuable at a critical stage of my early career development – They supported me to harness my strengths gained from sport and highlight these during interview processes to show I have something different to offer, against other strong candidates with very high academic and work related backgrounds.

Less than 1% of young footballers go on to have a fruitful career, but not being part of that group doesn’t make you a failure.

When you drop out of a professional club, you always look at the disappointments and failures, but instead, I try to look at my experiences as a positive. The key is to think about what you can learn from your experiences and understand how to apply them in a different setting. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the grounding I have done within elite-sporting environments, but its also vital to not forget about this, and start using it to your advantage, because:

The key traits and behaviours elite-athletes and sportsman possess, are often aligned to the talent profiles that top recruiters and organisations are trying to build.

I’ve also recently launched a network within my current company IBM, for ex-athletes and those with a background in sport – enabling people to connect, share experiences, and raise awareness of the Transferable Skills athletes’ possess and how these can be valuable within companies like IBM and the consulting industry more broadly. Networks like these are helpful to connect with like-minded people, to help ‘give-back’ to emerging talent and support those who are approaching a similar pathway that myself and our community have been through.


You can connect with Nitin here:

LinkedIn: Nitin Mishra

Twitter – @Nmishraaa

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