Trust is scarce these days, especially among young adults.

According to the Pew Research Center, about 73% of adults under the age of 30 feel that people most often “just look out for themselves,” and 71% believe people “would take advantage of you if they had the chance.”

This sentiment extends to universities and their relationships with student-athletes. Simply look at the fight over reopening schools, postponing seasons, cutting athletic programs, and student-athletes’ efforts to get paid and unionize.

The good news: humans are wired to build meaningful connections with one another based on trust. And for universities, there’s an effective way to foster these connections: Athlete Affinity Groups. These school-sponsored, private micro-communities have the power to rebuild trust with student-athletes and alumni, improving outcomes for all.

The Student-Athlete Experience

To effectively help student-athletes make the critical transition into a life after sports, we must recognize their experience and obstacles are unique. The logistical issues are obvious: limited time for internships, career fairs, networking events, etc. But it’s the mental and emotional ones that can be the most challenging.

There’s often a deep psychological force at play for the 98% of student-athletes whose careers end in college (naturally or due to injury): Identity Foreclosure. Identity Foreclosure happens when an individual derives their sense of self by their commitment to a given role before they’ve explored other options.

This is especially true for student-athletes whose world has been defined from a very young age by their participation in competitive sports. It’s so common, sports psychologists refer to it as “Athlete Identity Foreclosure”. Because this has serious implications for their mental-health, it’s important to recognize and address this risk.

In addition, some of the same attributes that make student-athletes exceptional in their given sports, such as the drive to prepare and perform, also cause anxiety when they consider life after college. The confidence they carry on the field often vanishes when it comes time to find a job.

“I and most of my teammates felt very unprepared for the job search,” said Alex Nicoara, a Campbell University graduate and former student-athlete. As athletes, she added, their natural performance-anxiety got in the way of reaching out for help because “we didn’t want to look unprepared in front of others.”

Although Nicoara took advantage of Campbell’s career center resources, there were still gaps that needed to be filled. “I didn’t feel like they understood my situation,” she said. “They just assigned me someone who didn’t know what it was like to be in my shoes, so it wasn’t very helpful.”

Adekunle Olusanya, founder of Atlas Limit Lifters and Furman University alum, works with many student-athletes and was a football player himself. “We ask a lot from these kids – being an athlete is like a major of its own,” he said. “They’re held to the same standards as non-athletes, but have more responsibilities and expectations on their shoulders.”

When it comes time to think about a career after sports, Olusanya noted, “Student-athletes feel behind. They feel they don’t have meaningful work experience, don’t think they have job connections, and don’t recognize how their skills translate.”

These are just a few of the factors that make the student-athlete’s experience different from their non-athlete peers and drives the need for programs, resources, and technology designed specifically for them.

The Athlete Affinity Group

Affinity Group: a group of people linked by a common interest or purpose.

Affinity groups aren’t new. They date back to the 19th century and have driven social change throughout history. Today, they’re common in business and are utilized to foster diversity, inclusion, and provide networking opportunities.

In our work with Universities, we’ve created Athlete Affinity Groups and have seen dramatically improved outcomes for all stakeholders.

Supported by NextPlay’s branded mobile applications, these micro-communities bring together student-athletes, former athlete alumni, coaches, staff, and external partners. The digital hub provides content and connections that translate into real-life events, relationships and opportunities–helping student-athletes transition into their post-sports careers. The software also automates much of the administration and coordination between members.

On a human level, Athlete Affinity Groups help build organic, meaningful, and continuous connections. Because NextPlay’s technology provides a closed and private network, the safe digital environment allows members to be themselves, support one another, and feel like they belong.

As a Furman football alum, Olusanya has built relationships with several Furman student-athletes. When asked why they come to him, Olusanya said, “Sometimes it’s to make an intro for a job. But most often, there’s no agenda. They just want to talk. It’s more about having someone to listen who understands where they’ve been and what they’re struggling with.”

These Athlete Affinity Groups also make student-athletes—both current and former—feel like the school is invested in them and their continued success, thereby building trust.

“When I joined the Campbell MADE program, it was the first time I felt like someone really cared and was willing to go out of their way to help me,” recalls Nicoara. She also appreciated that the content and technology were tailored for the student-athlete. “I was so much more engaged, it was more relatable, and they really helped me understand how to market myself as a former student-athlete.”

Improved Outcomes

Ask an employer to describe their ideal candidate and they’ll likely list traits inherent in a student-athlete: coachability, time management, teamwork, communication, goal setting, perseverance,  leadership… the list goes on.

Peggy Shell, CEO and Founder of Creative Alignments, works with businesses to recruit talent and with new grads through CA Launch, a career accelerator program. Having played softball at Northwestern University, she also knows what it’s like to be a student-athlete.

“We have a lot of companies who say ‘If they were a college athlete, that shows me they have many of the skills and the mindset we’re looking for.’ This is especially true in sales-related roles and start-ups,” Shell said.

But a student-athletes’ resume isn’t enough.

“The first thing we tell our job seekers is to find a way to make a meaningful connection,” Peggy said. “The narrower the better because people are more motivated to help. Alumni from your college team is a great place to start.”

For student-athletes and former alumni, this is one way Athlete Affinity Groups improve outcomes. Before graduation or mid-career, NextPlay’s technology helps community members make meaningful connections with one another to explore career paths, get an introduction into a desired company, and expand their horizons.

As Kyle Mumma, Founder and CEO of NextPlay, observed, “Many student-athletes who want to stay engaged in sports often go into coaching. But they soon realize they actually hate being a coach—watching hours of game film, recruiting, dealing with parents, the administrative work.”

“What they really enjoyed about sports was less obvious—the camaraderie, the competition, working hard to achieve a goal, belonging to something bigger than themselves,” Mumma added. “All of which can be found in many jobs. We intentionally design our programs to help them imagine a wider range of possibilities for their future.”

In Mumma’s work with universities, he’s also seen how these private micro-communities create an authentic and continuous connection between schools and alumni, helping to drive lasting fundraising gains.

“Most often, the strongest tie an alum has to their athletic program is to their coach. When the coach leaves, so does the relationship.”  To bridge that gap, Mumma said, “When the school shows they give a damn about their student-athletes beyond their playing career, the alumni are more engaged. They’re more likely to donate their time or money to support the program that helped them get to where they are, and to support the current generation of athletes on their path.”

We’ve seen the power of Athlete Affinity Groups to build trust and improve outcomes for all. NextPlay’s technology platform has been at the core of these micro-communities and we continue to expand our solution to better serve student-athletes and universities. If you’d like to explore how we can help your school build a custom solution to prepare student-athletes for their next challenge, please get in touch.