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Work-life balance is harder, more stressful for sport employees

Work-life balance is harder, more stressful for sport employees
March 17, 2021 SEHD Communications

Work-life balance is harder, more stressful for sport employees

When competition is at the core of your role, how do you manage a healthy work-life balance?

Sport management expert Dr. Marlene Dixon, Department of Health and Kinesiology, sought to answer this question after experiencing difficulty balancing both coaching and family in her own life.

“My longtime coauthor and I started to notice that many of our other colleagues were also struggling to balance coaching and a family, even to the point of quitting coaching,” Dixon said.

Dr. Marlene Dixon

Dr. Marlene Dixon

Through her Sport and Life Quality research group, Dixon and her colleagues identified that parent coaches, coaches, elite athletes, front office staff and other sport employees typically struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“Although competition is not unique to sport, because of the public nature of sport, it certainly plays a role in amplifying the stress that sport employees feel,” Dixon said.

Dixon said sport employees have a tangible, public product compared to other high-stress professions which adds additional pressure to their already intense jobs. For instance, after just one bad game, fans on social media may publicly call for a coach’s removal.

The chaos of coaching

Division I head coaches are expected to be coaches, fundraisers, the face of the organization and maintain the health and wellbeing of assistant coaches and players, on top of managing their home life.

“There is just not enough time in the day for coaches in this ridiculously broadly-defined role,” Dixon said.

However, while Division I coaches have larger staffs to help balance these expectations, Division II and II do not and are typically expected to take on just as much. Dixon advises schools base expectations on current staff support or hire more staff support to avoid turnover in coaching positions caused by lack of healthy work-life balance.

Dixon said the saturated labor market is also to blame in the stress that sport employees feel.

“What we hear from a lot of employees is that they feel if they don’t do this job and do it well, there are one hundred more people standing right behind them ready to take their job,” Dixon said.

The stress does not discriminate

Dixon said the most surprising finding in this area is the sheer prevalence of stress among sport employees regardless of gender or position.

“It is surprising that this is a battle literally for everyone who works in the sport profession,” Dixon said. “And it is not just about work-family balance, it is about work-life balance.”

The occurrence is not just for individuals with families to manage, Dixon also highlighted the stress is there for those with aging parents and single employees trying to find an outlet or free time beyond work.

Dixon consulted mid-career and late-career coaches to understand how sport employees can find a healthy balance. She said the response was that it is possible to “have it all”, but it requires intentional scaffolding of support systems both in work and home life.

Dixon said the introduction of mandated time off for coaches has been helpful in alleviating stress while protecting teams from a competitive disadvantage.

“One of the reasons that coaches in particular drive so hard is because there is this sort of keep up with the Joneses mentality, and that the other guy is going to outwork you,” Dixon said.

Future research and honors

Dixon hopes to continue researching the issues that sport employees face and provide solutions for a healthy work-life balance. She plans to take a deeper look into the burnout that occurs from working both in paid roles and unpaid roles, otherwise known as the traditional job setting and the mandatory tasks in a home that are not leisure activities.

Dixon has been a sport management researcher for 20 years. She was recently awarded the Earle F. Zeigler Lecture Award from the North American Society for Sport Management. The award is a top recognition in sport management, honoring scholars who have made substantial contributions in research, teaching and service.

“This award is meaningful because it represents 20 years of a collaborative contribution to sport management and to people’s lives,” Dixon said. “So, it represents a whole collection of stories, and relationships, and adventures; of wins and rejections and overcoming challenges; of creative thinking and growth and enjoyment in the process.”

Dixon said she is honored to be named among her esteemed mentors and peers who have won this award, and she hopes it represents well and celebrates all of the work that “Team Dixon” has built together.

Dixon is also being honored at the upcoming Center for Sport Management Research and Education Research Symposium where she will discuss her research and award with fellow sport management scholars.

“Her work on creating access for girls and women in sport, coupled with her scholarship in the area of work-life balance, have advanced sport management in meaningful ways. She is a true leader in the field,” said Dr. George Cunningham, director of the Center for Sport Management Research and Education.

The symposium, which is open to the public, will be held via Zoom on Mar. 25 at 1 p.m. CST. Register by emailing

Read a previous story about Dixon’s sport for development research featuring her Highway of Hope basketball program for girls and women in Africa.

About the Writer

Heather is responsible for news coverage in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, as well as the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development.

Articles by Heather

For media inquiries, contact our Media Relations Coordinator, Ashley Green

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