Former NFL star Eddie George recently admitted that life after sports has been a tough transition, one where he regularly fights off depression as he moves on in life. This really isn’t surprising, at least to people who are close to athletes or work in the sports business, as literally thousands of athletes each year fight the same struggles as George talks about. In fact, not only is sport retirement a challenge for professional athletes, but many college and even high school student athletes experience the same stress associated with walking away from a game they love.
When I conducted research on the sport retirement transition of elite-level athlete in the 1990’s, we found that most were completely unprepared for the ends of their careers and had done very little planning to move on to a new, non-sport career. Keep in mind these were not “dumb jocks,” nor were they people suffering from any detectable form of mental illness. Instead, they were people who at the age of 22 or 23 had essentially been fired from a job they loved.
Athletes (of all ages) today face the same struggles George talks about as many specialize in one sport, play the sport year-round, and develop an exclusive athletic identity as a result. What this means is they often see themselves as only worthy as an athlete and don’t spend much time thinking about the inevitable — that competing as an athlete will end one day.
I have helped many athletes through this transition, and have even co-authored a book on the topic. Fortunately, with counseling and support from friends and family most athletes do eventually successfully transition through sport retirement — but many do not, and in worst-case scenarios turn to drugs, alcohol, and various reckless behaviors to cope. While Eddie George’s story is sad, it should also serve as a reminder to parents and coaches that it is vitally important to “tune in” when parenting or coaching athletes who seemingly want to ignore the inevitable that their careers will end one day. In these instances it is important to step in and begin dialogue about sport retirement, as well as help in the eventual transition process.
For more information please check out Positive Transitions for Student Athletes or Sport Success 360.