When an athlete retires from the sport he or she has devoted almost their entire life to, they go through a transition period to a “new life” after the game. For some, this can be a relatively seamless transition. Their playing career ends, but they transition into the next chapter of their lives seemingly right away. For example, NBA player James Jones and MLB player David Ross retired from playing but transitioned right into roles in the front office of an organization or broadcasting, respectively. However, for many this is often one of the most difficult periods of their lives.
This is a time in an athlete’s life where he or she can undergo some sort of personal identity crisis. Now that the training and competing has stopped, the question becomes “who am I?” One of the most common outcomes is falling into a depression. The struggle of adapting to a “regular life” can lead to a feeling of being forgotten by followers of the sport and former teammates, etc.
The changes during this transition are not only physical, but also mental. By retiring from a sport, an athlete can be overwhelmed with the changes to his or her personal, social and occupational lives.
A stigma surrounding professional athletes is that since they some of the toughest individuals so they are not plagued with the same issues as “normal” people, such as mental health issues. However, depression among athletes is more common than one would think, as is the case with former NFL player Warrick Dunn. He found strength in breaking the stigma and taking his life back through counseling. The former Pro Bowler’s depression entered his life when his mother was murdered after his 18th birthday. He distracted himself with a prolific football career, but during his seventh NFL season he realized he needed help.
Many athletes find themselves in the same position as Olympic silver medalist badminton player, Gail Emms. She retired following the Beijing Olympic Games and in an article titled “I’m Ashamed to Admit I’m Struggling” highlights the difficulty she has had transitioning to a life after the game. Luckily, for Dunn, Emms and other athletes about to go through a career transition, there are resources available to make the transition more manageable.
According to the International Olympic Committee, when athletes transition to life after competing in an Olympics, they face six challenges. While these challenges pertain to Olympic athletes, they can be applied to athletes retiring from other sports as well.
Loss of Structure
Inherent with being a professional athlete is a rigorous training schedule. During the offseason, you are training to prepare for the season ahead. Once the season arrives, there are practices, games and training sessions to maintain physical skills. Upon retirement, there are no more practices or mandatory workouts. While it is common for athletes to take a break after the season, they eventually get back into a routine when ramping up their training for the season ahead. This lack of routine can be a challenge for athletes who have been ingrained in routines for most of their lives. A way to overcome this, according to the IOC is to build some structure into your regular day by creating a schedule of tasks.
Loss of Focus
As a professional athlete, you are most likely goal-oriented – whether those goals are to win a championship, set a record, etc. Once you retire, trying to find a new goal can be a challenge. A suggestion would be to find goals that are achievable in everyday life, whether that is getting a new job, maintaining a workout regimen, etc.
Loss of Identity
This is one of the most common things athletes encounter when they retire. After identifying (and possibly introducing yourself) as an athlete for so long, it may be challenging to think of yourself as anything else. A way to conquer this is to think about your passions and find something else that inspires you.
Lack of Feedback
In training, practice and even games or competitions, you are constantly receiving feedback on how to improve. In retirement and a second career, the feedback will still be available but it will not as constant or easy to make adjustments. Often times, this will come in the form of a performance review. Adjusting to this lack of immediate feedback can be a difficult adjustment for athletes. Finding performance-driven jobs can make the transition easier, according to the IOC.
A New Diet
Something not commonly thought of is the change in an athlete’s diet once they retire. Michael Phelps’ diet during his training for the Olympics might not necessarily be the course of action for all athletes, but it certainly cannot be maintained in retirement. Figuring out this essential part of your new lifestyle can be a major change.
A Sense of Melancholy
For many athletes, the rush of adrenaline from competing in front of hundreds to thousands of fans (and potentially more on TV) is something that can never be replicated. Accepting the fact that you will not get this rush in retirement can lead to many athletes suffering from depression as they “grieve” the end of their career. Luckily, many athletes before you have experienced the same thing so you are not alone.
Additionally, the league in which you competed in has resources to make the transition to life after the game an easier experience. The NFLPA has programs for its players to utilize during the transition through The Trust. Additionally, the IOC has the Athlete Career Programme to assist athletes in the transition to a career after sport. These programs are readily available and were developed for athletes to use when going through their own career transition.
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