Passing the Torch

How athletes can build a personal brand to share knowledge, teach, and interact directly with fans.

Elite athletes are some of the most recognizable faces out there today. The modern athlete has an incredible reach and influence – through their social media presence, interactions with media, and performance on the field, rink or course.

While athletes have recognized this shift, they aren’t always comfortable or confident enough to try to capitalize. You don’t need to be a household name – a LeBron, Serena or Tiger – to make an impact for yourself and others. You’re not taking away from your team’s camaraderie by making that impact. It’s possible for an athlete to build a brand that goes beyond the “look at me” culture and inspires fans and aspiring athletes.

I played eight seasons of professional hockey across the United States and Sweden. In my career, I’ve run into every type of teammate you could imagine – players from different backgrounds, different countries and at different points in their lives. One thing that remained consistent across all – the power of pulling on that jersey. From there – that moment when you see the fans in the stands and give a fist bump to a tiny fan – the type of impact an interaction has is priceless.

Now imagine if fans could get that same type of interaction, reaching out and touching their favorite athlete without the current guardrails. A dad can get on his kid every day to work harder. Nothing could change. But if that same kid hears his favorite athlete preach the values of hard work, something might click. There’s a real opportunity for athletes to tell their stories and deliver authentic content to their fans digitally. But building an athlete’s brand and making that connection requires some work.

Getting past that uncomfy feeling

Especially with hockey players, there’s a real sense of discomfort with social media. I think hockey players by nature are a little more humble, a little more soft spoken. We don’t always like to beat our chests and tell the world what we’re doing – our job is to get on the ice and win games.

Everyone knows the world of social media can be scary. Posting a 6-second story on Instagram can lead to hours of anxiety afterward. Was the picture good enough? Did I tag the right people? Is this joke in my caption gonna land?

What athletes have to remember is that fans actually want to see what we have to post. It can be scary to wonder what other people think. But the truth is, we can’t really connect with fans on social media without letting our guard down and showing off some personality. No one is interested in going down a rabbit hole of nothing but your team photographer’s game photos of you. The fans who buy tickets and cheer you on, or tune in to your games, get those visuals already. They’re interested in the person behind the jersey number – what interests you, how you take care of yourself, or how you engage with family or friends. Ultimately, it’s about the human connection they get when they realize you too are just a person, with a really incredible skill set.

Storytelling with confidence

I sometimes even hesitate to use the phrase “building a brand” when talking to athletes. Every athlete already is a brand – it’s who you are and the skills and stories that got you to where you are now. All we need to do is amplify that message and get it to the intended audience.

Finding the right platform with the right direction will give athletes the safe home base they need. Trying to build out that brand without the proper guidance can feel like running on a hamster wheel. It’s all about pinpointing the parts of you that you want to share – and telling those stories in a compelling way that grows your audience.

Building a brand in your prime

No athlete wants to admit it, but there’s a harsh truth waiting at the end of everyone’s career. There are no guarantees in sports – except that everyone’s playing career is going to end. It’s a scary thought that most want to sweep under the rug.

It’s not all doom and gloom; it’s just a cold hard fact that emphasizes the need for athletes to maximize their branding efforts while they’re still playing. In most professions, people start their jobs in their 20s and keep working until AARP comes knocking in their 60s. As athletes, we have a much shorter window.

That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of your prime years to build your brand so you have an audience and a platform when your playing career comes to an end and you’re looking to start your next chapter of endeavors.

Spreading your story and lessons learned

You may be uncomfortable getting your story told. But maybe there’s a younger athlete or fan whose life could be changed by something you say, do or post. Athletes have a bigger platform than they realize – one that can really elevate the next generation with the lessons you’ve learned in your journey.

Think back to when you were a little kid practicing on the frozen pond behind your house. A few words of encouragement from your favorite player would be priceless. That’s the power of building a brand and spreading our stories – the passing of the Torch.