“Shedding the ego and starting over after you’ve made it to the top is hard. It’s hard to become a nobody after you were a somebody.”
“Also no longer being ‘famous’ some guys need that stardom well they don’t NEED it but they crave it. How could you not it’s been a drug since childhood. You’ve been a star for forever but how can you shine without the game.”
~Martellus Bennett, former NFL All Pro and Super Bowl champion
The challenges of sport retirement
Sport retirement is an inevitable transition all athletes will experience, and while some athletes successfully deal with their sports careers ending, many others struggle with the issues Martellus Bennett describes. Interestingly, sport retirement transition issues are not limited to football, as athletes from all sports, genders, and skill levels regularly share similar stories around the abruptness, isolation, and uncertainties they experience during sport retirement. In fact, even young athletes from interscholastic and youth sports can feel devastated when they are suddenly faced with sport retirement, be it from a sports injury or deselection (being cut). Picking up the pieces and moving on from something you have done for the majority of your life is not easy, especially as this pertains to developing a new, non-athlete identity and finding a new calling in life.
There are specific features unique to sport retirement that parents, coaches, and athletes should understand in order to successfully transition from sports, including the following:
- Athletic identity. For many athletes, even young athletes, their identity while playing sports is that of “athlete.” Often athletes self-identify as athlete, and the world around them sees them them this way as well. Re-defining a life after sports when the “athlete” identity no longer fits can be both challenging and confusing, leaving the athlete with the big question of who am I?
- Achievement satisfaction. Research shows that achievement satisfaction, also known as “unfinished business,” plays a role in how well an athlete will transition from sports. Athletes who have reached most/all of their goals are generally more ready to move on, while athletes who have met few of their goals often struggle when having to retire with so many goals still unmet.
- Career maturity. Making age-appropriate career decisions is important as it applies to pursuing careers after sports end, and for some athletes their level of career maturity lags far behind their peers. This is understandable, as athletes devote most of their life toward their sport, leaving little time to explore their career interests beyond their sport. With that said, working with a career specialist can help athletes jump-start their lives after sports by discovering exciting non-sport career paths.
- Support system. One of the most effective ways for athletes to deal with personal issues is to solicit help from teammates, also known as their support system. When a sports career ends, however, the former support system is no longer available, leaving transitioning athletes to deal with their sport retirement challenges alone.
- Future planning. For many athletes, planning for sport retirement is something not thought about, or in some cases actively avoided. One healthy way to mitigate the stress of sport retirement is to regularly think bout and work on a post-sports career path so that when sport retirement occurs the transition will not be as abrupt and stressful as some athletes experience.
All athletes, regardless of athletic skill or talent, should prepare for their inevitable sport retirement transition. It is important to note that preparing for life after sports is not a sign of weakness, nor will it jinx your current sport career by preparing for a non-sport life. If you, or someone you know, is transitioning from sports to life after sports, consider the following ideas designed to help during this transition:
- Use athletic transferable skills. Athletes learn and use countless skills in sports that can easily be applied to non-sport careers, including goal setting, communication, focus, and dealing with adversity to name a few.
- Check on school resources. If you are a student athlete check out what resources might be available at your college or high school, and ask how they can help prepare you for the next step in life.
- Career counseling. For many athletes the thought of a career after sports has never entered their mind, and consequently they lag behind their peers when it comes to integrating their interests, talents, and the types of jobs that best fit them as a result. Career counselors can help by providing career testing, as well as help with resumes, cover letters, and job interviewing training.
- Mental health support. Feelings of depression and anxiety are not uncommon when dealing with the end of a sports career, but athletes can overcome these challenges by working with a sport psychologist or similar mental health professional with experience assisting athletes.
Not all athletes will feel like Martellus Bennett while experiencing sport retirement, but many do have similar opinions about the experience. Losing an athletic identity, feeling confused about life after sports, and finding a support group of similar people can be difficult when sports end, leaving athletes vulnerable to a variety of mental health issues and concerns. If your sports career is nearing the end, start preparing now so that your current sport experience serves as a trampoline to even bigger and better things in the future.